How America’s Wars Have Changed The English Language

Community
U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Michael Uribe

Speech, much like the world, is in a constant state of flux. The way that wars alter the world, they also modify the way we speak and redefine the way we think. As troops have invaded nations, slang too has invaded our vernacular.


As early as the Civil War, military reporter R.W. McAlpine wrote about slang and its impact on American speech. In his article, “A Word About Slang” in the June 1865 issue of United States Service Magazine, he reflected that war slang was a perversion of the language as a result of the urgency of battle. More contemporary writers like Seth Lerer, author of “Inventing English: a Portable History of the Language,” suggest that slang can instead be considered by modern authors to be a form of innovation.

Lerer wrote, “War always changes language. It brings in new words, changes attitudes, [and] shifts dialects.”

Through wars, some words have changed or garnered new meanings while others were newly coined for specific places and things. During the Civil War, “skedaddle” became “skeet” or “scoot.” In World War I, the word “lousy,” which was intended to describe lice infestations, came to mean weary. In the same token, “trench coat” — a jacket worn in the trenches during battle — to this day remains an iconic outerwear style. “Jeep” came from the letters “G.P.” emblazoned on the side of each general purpose vehicle used during World War II.

In 1950, prior to the Korean War, novelist Robert C. Ruark wrote in a syndicated newspaper column, “That seems to be one of the nicer things about war — it enriches the language so.”

It is no coincidence then that during World War I, hundreds of words and phrases became part of our everyday speech. Wilfred Funk, author of “Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories,” estimated that for each year the United States was involved in World War II, we added more than 6,000 words to the American vocabulary.

The brutality of war has and will continue to spawn thousands of euphemisms that we use in everyday speech. In fact, wars have impacted American speech so profoundly, that they have inspired a series of dictionaries and anthologies to serve as record of the terms and phrases coined during each.

In 2011, author and slang expert Paul Dickson produced the third edition of his book “War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War,” in which he shows how language mirrors the unique experience of each conflict from the Civil War through the Iraq War. Arranged chronologically, the book depicts the linguistic tone of each war — World War II language is as transformative and innovative as the world was at the time, just as Vietnam War phrases showed to be as frustrated and cynical as the soldiers serving its cause.

Dickson wrote during the Vietnam War, the slang was “brutal, direct, and geared to high-tech jungle warfare,” and for the first time in American war history produced a vocabulary of defeat. This particular era spawned a number of new, casual designations for death, like “greased” and “blown away.”

From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number of slang terms have made their way into regular usage. “Homeland” became the designation for the domestic United States. The term “ground zero” also went from being a term for an area destroyed by nuclear attack to a popularized metaphor for what was left of the World Trade Center, as well as any area leveled by wartime destruction.

However unintentionally, soldiers have become architects of language and profound agents of change throughout history.  

Words are paltry things even when compared to peaceful, everyday human experience, and war words are often invented to describe things that are brutally indescribable, bring humor to things that are not funny, and create designations for things that are otherwise unidentifiable.

The U.S. military's withdrawal from northeast Syria is looking more like Dunkirk every day.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military had to call in an airstrike on one of its own ammunition dumps in northern Syria because the cargo trucks required to safely remove the ammo are needed elsewhere to support the withdrawal, Task & Purpose has learned.

Read More Show Less

Retired two-star Navy. Adm. Joe Sestak is the highest ranking — and perhaps, least known — veteran who is trying to clinch the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

Sestak has decades of military experience, but he is not getting nearly as much media attention as fellow veterans Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Another veteran, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has dropped out of the race.

Read More Show Less

After preliminary fitness test scores leaked in September, many have voiced concerns about how women would fare in the new Army Combat Fitness Test.

The scores — which accounted for 11 of the 63 battalions that the ACFT was tested on last year — showed an overall failure rate of 84% for women, and a 70% pass rate for men.

But Army leaders aren't concerned about this in the slightest.

Read More Show Less
This photo taken on Oct. 7, 2018, shows a billboard that reads "The State Central Navy Testing Range" near residential buildings in the village of Nyonoksa, northwestern Russia. The Aug. 8, 2019, explosion of a rocket engine at the Russian navy's testing range just outside Nyonoksa led to a brief spike in radiation levels and raised new questions about prospective Russian weapons. (AP Photo/Sergei Yakovlev)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Three U.S. diplomats have been removed from a train and briefly questioned by Russian authorities in the sensitive Arctic shipyard city of Severodvinsk, near the site of a mysterious explosion in August that killed five nuclear workers.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported on October 16 that the diplomats were taken off the train that runs between Severodvinsk and Nyonoksa around 6 p.m. on October 14.

Read More Show Less

The U.S. Coast Guard had ordered the owner of an illegal 45-foot charter boat, named "Sea You Twerk," to stop operating.

He didn't, the Coast Guard said.

Now, Dallas Lad, 38, will serve 30 days in federal prison, a judge ruled Friday. When he is released, Ladd of Miami Beach, who pleaded guilty, will not be able to own or go on a boat for three years.

Read More Show Less