What Is In A Word: Part Twenty-Nine
Ever wonder where the acronym AWOL came from? Or how about “zero hour” or “roger that”? Through out the history of the English language, words have been invented by different groups for representation of one thing, that has later gone on to mainstream use and widespread understanding … perhaps in a very different way. Here are just a few examples of some from the world of the military…
The origins of this word are said to be traced back to the American Civil War. At that time prisoners of war were kept incarcerated in makeshift facilities, often with little to no real overhead covering or bars/enclosing of any type (be they wood, stone, brick, steel, etc). The prison guards would therefore draw a line around the perimeter, instructing the prisoners that anyone who crossed the line would be shot on sight, making it the “dead line.” Today we use this word in many ways, most often meaning the time when something is due.
On a ship, the crew took their drinking water from a cask called the “scuttlebutt,” and whenever a few men gathered to take a break, gossip and hearsay about the voyage/their mission and so forth would soon follow. Eventually, the word for the water barrel came to refer to the petty gossip itself, and while not widely used anymore, scuttlebutt still is recognized as meaning … mindless gossip…
Bite the Bullet
In the heat of combat, battlefield surgery is no laughing matter: unsanitary conditions, lack of supplies, lack of postoperative care. When soldiers were injured during a war and anesthetics like chloroform or whiskey had run out, doctors had no choice but to proceed with amputations, even if the patient was fully awake and cognizant. In such circumstances, the soldier was often given a bullet to bite down on to help him channel the pain and keep still. So today we use the term to refer to a person whom must “clamp down” and do something they most not necessarily want to do or find uncomfortable in some way.
Heard It Through the Grapevine
During the first days of telegraphy, the wires needed to send all the messages were strung all over the country in patterns that sometimes looked like grapevines. Instant communication made disseminating news easier, but it also made for increased inaccuracy and errors. Civil War soldiers called it “the grapevine” because of the way the wires twisted around the terrain, and because it reminded them of the way information wended its way through multiple parties. The term also insinuated that since grapevines were tended mainly by poor farmers, the information was not to be trusted. Today it is used in an offhand way to describe information we have heard through a number a parties that may or many not be true. Rumors and innuendo
This acronym, standing for “fouled (or f@#ked) up beyond all recognition” is said to have originated in the U.S. Army. Its first recorded use was in 1944, (although soldiers had probably been using this slang term for many years before then).
Three Sheets to the Wind
This naval phrase, describing someone who’s had too much to drink can be traced all the way back to the days of wooden ships. The drunkard’s clothes were usually in a state of disarray, with his shirttails flapping, and so he was compared to an untended ship whose sails were loose and blowing carelessly in the wind.
Used by armies all over the world, this term originally referred to the small party that was sent out in advance of the main body of troops in order to plot a course or chart a terrain. It was also sometimes called the advance guard or the vanguard. The French version of this word was appropriated by the arts-and-culture world to refer to anyone working at the forefront of creativity or experimentation.
The invention of wireless telegraphy was a huge benefit to ships, which were now able to call for help when they were in distress. The code S.O.S. was first used by the Germans in 1905 and was eventually adopted by all nations for both commercial and military vessels. The code isn’t an acronym for “save our souls,” “send out supplies,” or another message; it actually doesn’t stand for anything. The letters were chosen because their Morse code transcription—dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot—is unmistakable
In medieval times, the sport of jousting, in which two knights charged at each other, each trying to knock the other off his horse, was originally called tilting. To run at “full tilt” was to run at top speed, and so while the mane of the sport has changed, the idea of the word “going full tilt” still remains with us.
With Flying Colours
Flags flown at sea were subject to strict and complex rules; the only time a warship would lower its flag (also called its colours) would be to acknowledge the passing of a higher-ranked ship, or to announce surrender in battle. A ship proudly flying its flag after a battle would have been advertising victory. Today we use the term in such ways as “they passed that test with flying colours, indicating that they did very will on the test they just had.