The U.S. military has its own language full of buzzwords, slang, acronyms, and insider phrases — some of which are used exclusively by those with rank — along with terms most civilians don’t understand. And yet, somehow, even some of the most widely accepted and commonly used “military phrases” aren’t understood (or correctly pronounced) by the people who utter them.
From “caveat” to “circle back” to “piggyback,” there are plenty of words and phrases in the military that we’re begging you, with tears in our eyes, to stop using.
At its most basic, language conveys meaning and intent. This thing is blue. This thing is red. Do this. Do that. I want this. I don’t want that. I like this. I fucking hate that.
But individual words and phrases, the workhorses of the spoken and written word, can also be used to unite, or divide. The words we use can welcome others into a community with its own lexicon, and that can strengthen a sense of shared identity. Jargon works as a sort of signifier, a way to verify that the speaker (and the listener) are part of the same club. On the flip side, that same language can be used to push others away, to make them into outsiders and banish them from the conversation. Or, at the very least, it can confuse the ever-loving fuck out of the uninitiated.
Don’t believe me? Just ask any career staff noncommissioned officer in the military anything. Literally anything.
The second they respond, you’ll probably feel like you’re talking to Yosemite Sam. I don’t know why that is, but it just is. That’s a part of military culture, and for those who have been around it and a part of it, it’s a dialect we speak, and we occasionally drop the odd “roger,” or — through gritted teeth — ask if anyone has “any saved rounds?”
Why does the military have its own lingo? It could be due to the vast collection of hundreds, if not thousands of acronyms that the Department of Defense forces upon its employees. Some words or phrases may have been adopted to push a “command message” from “the top down,” which would explain the rotating list of buzzwords that change with the seasons and the tides of war. One year it’s “great power competition” the next it’s “boots on the ground.” Today it’s “lethality.” Then there are the phrases and terms that just won’t die, from “OODA Loop” to “multi-domain” and “interoperability.”
This is hardly news to anyone who’s spent any time in and around the military, or online. It’s been the basis for countless listicles, videos where civilians try to guess what “blue falcon” or another slang term actually means, and it’s been parodied in music videos from the EAS Song to the recent ballad of belligerence, Clean Up Your 7-Ton:
Another reason for the Defense Department’s love affair with its own lingo might be because the military, as a long-standing institution, has developed its own culture over time and the words it uses get passed down generation to generation, with one group of old-timers “behooving” the next one to remember to “treat, never, keep, keep,” on the range.
Let’s “focus up” and “zero in” on that last example: Behoove. The beloved buzzword of Staff NCOs across the military. The actual definition of behoove is: a duty or responsibility for someone to do something; it is incumbent on. (A quick caveat here: “Incumbent” is another word that’s frequently dropped during an ass chewing or counseling session, and is usually used like this: It is incumbent upon you to follow this or that regulation or order.)
Think back to all those times in the service when you were angrily told by some sergeant or petty officer that it would “behoove of you to do” something, like pick up a stray hair from around the edge of your bathroom sink, instead of just saying “hey, clean that up before the barracks inspection.”
If you’ve ever been “behooved” into doing something that’s not incredibly important — something that you are not duty-bound to do — then the speaker was misusing the word, as reader Joe Tally, aptly pointed out when we asked readers what words they’d like to deposit in the trash heap of military history.
“Behoove is a verb used with an object,” Tally wrote. “It means to be essential or dutiful. The formal construction is it behooves (someone) to do (something). However, most often the word is misused to mean the action benefits or gives gain to a person.
“Maybe if people would research the true definitions of words when using them, they would understand them better. I, as well as several other instructors in the fire service, use this word when lecturing students in the classroom. When used properly, the word should not make your skin crawl, it should lend for you to understand the urgency of the topic it is being used for. “
But that’s just one of the many words that we — the military and veterans community at large and leaders in particular — sometimes use and misuse, but almost certainly overuse.
And so, here is a long, but far from definitive, list of words that you, our readers, would like the “top brass” in the “head shed” to stop using:
*TAKES DEEP BREATH* Those words are:
“Behoove.” We’ve covered this, at length, but it was the most complained about word from our readers, so here it is, hopefully for the last time.
“Blue Falcon.” A Blue Falcon is someone who is a “buddy fucker,” meaning that they screw their teammates over, often. While I personally love this phrase, some of our readers disagree. (It might be because they’re Blue Falcons, though.)
“Bucketize.” I don’t think this is actually a word, at least, it’s not a word you can drop in Scrabble. As the name suggests, it means “to put things into buckets,” though when your platoon sergeant or lieutenant says it, they’re probably talking about prioritizing one thing over another: Do this first, do that next, do that last, etc. The best definition of this word — and why not to use it — comes from a hyper-specific Urban Dictionary post, which says that “bucketize” is used by “asshat” managers in an effort to sound smarter than they are.
“Caveat.” No. Just no. Stop. Stop it right the fuck now.
“Charlie Foxtrot.” This means cluster fuck, but why not just say it? If something’s really a cluster fuck, there’s no point tip-toeing through the tulips.
“Chow.” Seriously, what’s wrong with just saying “food” or “breakfast,” “lunch” or “dinner?” Military food can be unappetizing enough without us making it sound like slop.
“Combat” as a descriptor. Most services are guilty of this, but the worst are the Army and Marine Corps. Not everything involves combat, and even when it does, it doesn’t involve combat all the time. I do not want my pay handled by “combat admin,” I want that done by someone wearing a pocket protector and sitting behind a computer surrounded by files and calculators.
“Dang nabbit,” “daggonit,” “dadgummit,” “daggon,” and any combination of these words and others. “Daggon-debbil-dawg,” for example. These are also the words that make you sound like Yosemite Sam, as one reader pointed out on Twitter.
“However comma,” and really any other word, or words, you want to use instead of “however” or “but.”
“Household 6.” This was another one we’d never heard before. Here’s how Mark Zinno, an Army National Guard officer and the host of the Hazard Ground podcast explains it: “Since every commander’s call sign has the number 6 after it (don’t ask me why … I have no fucking clue) your wife/spouse who is the ‘commander of your household’ she gets the title ‘household 6,’” Zinno said, before giving an example:
You: “Hey wanna go out tonight and watch the game and have a few beers?”
Me: “Uhhh, yeah. Sounds good but let me check with Household 6 first.”
And that’s absurd. “Just say ‘let me talk to my wife,’” Zinno said. “Not everything has to be militarized.”
“IAW,” or “in accordance with.”
“Irregardless.” Just say “regardless.” Adding two letters to the front of it doesn’t earn you points, it just takes longer to say.
“Open kimono.” The phrase, which is also used in corporate America, means to reveal one’s plan, but seeing as a kimono is a traditional Japanese garment, and opening it up means exposing oneself, this is kind of like using “drop your pants” as shorthand for “tell me your plan,” and that’d be really fucking weird to hear in the middle of a meeting. It might also explain why some are against using it or see it as sexist and racist.
“Orientate.” Just say “face this way” or “face that way.” Do not say “re-orientate.” Say: “turn around.”
“Piggyback.” Pro tip: If you feel the need to announce that you are going to “piggyback” on something, you probably shouldn’t do it.
“Soup sandwich,” as in “this dude’s as fucked up as a soup sandwich,” but then that really just begs the question: What’s wrong with saying “he’s fucked up.” Also, what’s wrong with soup sandwiches? A grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup is delicious.
“Squared away.” Why is it a square? Can’t we octagon away? What if I want to trapezoid away? Where’s “away” anyway? I only have questions after hearing this phrase.
“Suck the egg.” We had to get clarification on this one, but it basically translates to: I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. It’s most often used when troops are given some shitty detail, and the CO’s response is “I won’t tell you how to suck an egg” or something to that effect. As for why, and who, would suck an egg? I have no earthly idea. I also don’t know why someone would use a confusing expression when “figure it out” works just fine.
“That being said…” I’m now going to undermine everything I just said: If it was good, I’m going to say something bad, now. If It was bad, but ended on a high note, expect more bad things to follow. That’s what you’re telegraphing to the world when you drop “that being said…”
“Utilize.” This. This is a big one. I lost count of how many readers brought this up in the comments, but if you don’t want to embarrass yourself during a job interview after leaving the military: Stop “utilizing” this word. Just say “use.” (Really any word ending in “ize” is highly suspect, as another reader pointed out on Twitter.)
And while that covers some of the most overused and despised words, we’re not quite done yet.
There’s still the issue of grammar, as another reader pointed out:
Point of contact is “myself.”
Direct any questions or comments to “myself.”
If you need clarification, reach out to “myself” or the SSgt here.
No… the point of contact is ME. Direct questions to ME. Reach out to ME.
Then there’s the mispronunciation of words, like “weapon cache.” It’s pronounced “cash” but you wouldn’t know that if the first time you heard the word was in uniform, you’d be positive that it was pronounced “cash-ayyyyy.” That most beloved (or hated) word, “behoove,” falls into this category as well, with some service members — almost always a senior enlisted leader — pronouncing it as “be who of you.”
Finally, there are those terms that should be jettisoned from the military’s nomenclature simply because they’re lies. For example, any time your CO says, “My door is open.” Sure, the door may be open, but the first sergeant may have a problem with you walking through it.
And that’s it folks. Those are the terms and bits of jargon our readers said they can’t stand.
Now, as we “close up shop” and “wind down,” I do have some thoughts on why one word or another might get tossed into every “hip pocket class” or “school circle” or “white space training,” since a very similar thing happens in corporate America, which also has its own jargon — though they probably swap “unit” and “cohesion” for “team” and “synergy.”
A November 2020 research paper from Columbia Business School that looked at nine different studies found that jargon is most often used by those who are trying to compensate for something else.
“Jargon is like a suit, a car, or a watch — it’s a status symbol. Those who are insecure ‘dress up’ their words, believing it will make them appear smarter or cause others to take them more seriously,” said Adam Galinsky, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. “It’s ironic though, because the reality is that people secure in their high status use less jargon, acronyms, and legalese. They prioritize clear communication, rather than concerning themselves with status or public perception.”
Or, maybe leaders just use the words they have in their “toolbox” and after “pushing through to the objective” and being “mission-focused” for so long, they’ve never really had time for a PME on clear communication (or to read a thesaurus) since they were too busy “making the green grass grow.” But that’s no excuse. After all, your “brain housing group” is your most effective weapon, and it’d “behoove you” to use it so you can speak like a normal person.
If you think we missed any overused words, or if any terms made it onto this list and you think they should remain a staple of safety briefs and school circles across the military — let us know! Hop into the comments and share your thoughts, and we’ll keep this list going as we get more suggestions.