Words of the Month: Military & Navy
The United States and Britain are deploying large numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen to the Persian Gulf. The United States and its allies are gearing up for another war with Iraq, so the words of the month are Military, adj., pertaining to soldiers, from the Latin miles or soldier, 1585, and Navy, n., a fleet or force of warships, from the Latin navis or ship, c. 1330.
We will take a look at some of the words that are used by and about the military, some official, some slang. Most of the technical or official terms dealt with here relate the US military. The definitions used by foreign militaries may be somewhat different and foreign militaries may employ synonyms for the words discussed here.
The armed forces are very hierarchical organizations and the ranks of individual members of the armed forces are significant. The following are the ranks and titles used in US military and naval forces, but most armed forces around the world use very similar rank structures.
The US uses two distinct set of titles for officer ranks, one used by the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps and the other by the Navy and Coast Guard.
A Warrant Officer is traditionally distinguished from other officers in that he is appointed via a warrant as opposed to a commission, although warrant officers in the US military now hold commissions. The term dates to 1696. In the US Armed Forces, a warrant officer is usually a senior sergeant who possesses special skills (physician’s assistant, helicopter pilot, supply specialist, etc.) and is granted officer’s rank. The US Air Force does not have warrant officers.
The rank lieutenant is from the French, lieu (place) + tenant (holding), one who acts in the place of another, a junior officer who acts on behalf of a senior commander, c. 1375. The naval equivalent of ensign was originally a military, not naval rank. It originally referred to a soldier who carried an ensign, or flag (1513), and later to a junior infantry officer. Naval usage is from 1708.
Captain dates back to Middle English and is ultimately from the Latin capitaneus, chief, head man, from caput, head, c. 1380.
Major is a clipping of sergeant-major. In days past sergeant-major was not an enlisted rank, but a rank above that of an army captain. From 1643.
The naval rank of commander dates to c. 1450.
The rank of colonel is ultimately from the Italian colonna, or column, from the commander of a column of troops, 1548.
The adjective general is traditionally appended to ranks to indicate a higher ranking officer, the use dates to 1576 (generall capytayne). A brigadier general (1 star) originally commanded a brigade, hence the name, although modern brigades are commanded by colonels. The rank dates to 1678. Like major, the rank of major general (2 stars) is a clipping of sergeant-major general. Major general has been in use since 1642, sergeant-major general since c.1595. The rank of lieutenant general (3 stars) dates to c.1489.
Many armies use the rank of marshal or field marshal to designate the highest ranking officers. Marshal comes from the Old French mareschal, originally one who attended horses. Its use as a rank of a high functionary in the royal court (Marshal of England) dates to 1258. The modern rank of field marshal is modeled on the German feldmarschall.
The US military does not use the rank of marshal, using in its place the rank of general of the army or general of the air force. The modern use of this rank and the use of 5-stars as its insignia was authorized in 1944. It is commonly thought that the US military adopted this name, instead of the rank field marshal, because George C. Marshall did not want to be known as “Marshal Marshall.” While Marshall may have objected to that moniker, the US military title of general of the army is much older. Three Civil War generals (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan) held the rank as did one World War I general (Pershing). Four WWII-era generals held the rank of general of the army (Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Bradley) and there has been one general of the air force (Arnold). No one has held the rank since Omar Bradley was appointed to it in 1950.
The naval rank of admiral is ultimately from the Arabic amir-al-ma, commander of the water. English use of the rank dates to 1460, although the term is used as far back as c.1205 in reference to Arab military commanders. The rank of rear admiral dates to 1589 and is a reference to the commander of ships at the rear of a line of battle. Vice admiral dates to 1520. The rank of Fleet Admiral (5 stars) was created in 1944. Four men, all WWII admirals, have held the rank (King, Leahy, Nimitz, and Halsey). The US Navy used to have the rank of commodore, a word of uncertain origin but that may be from the Dutch kommandeur (1695). A commodore ranked between a captain and a rear admiral. In the Royal Navy, commodore is not a permanent rank, rather being used to denote a senior captain in charge of a squadron of ships.
Enlisted ranks are more complex than those of officers, differing with each service, often having multiple titles for the same rank, and little consistency among foreign armies. Etymologically, however, the terms are simpler. The etymologies of seaman and airman are self-evident. Not so with private, whose common meaning has changed from the original. The word is from the Latin privatus, meaning deprived of or without public office. A private soldier, therefore, is one without rank or position. The term private soldier dates to 1579.
A corporal is the lowest rank of non-commissioned officer, or NCO. The word corporal is ultimately from the Italian caporale, one who leads a corps or body of troops. A lance corporal is a lesser corporal. The lance refers to the old weapon and has been used as an adjunct to various military ranks over the years. The rank lancepesade, from the Italian lance spezzata, literally broken lance, dates to 1578. By 1786 this rank had been altered to lance corporal.
The backbone of any army are the sergeants. That term comes, via the Old French sergent, from the Latin servientem or servant. The word came to be applied to common soldiers around 1300. The modern use of a non-commissioned officer dates to 1548.
A first sergeant is the highest ranking NCO in a company-sized unit. Also known as a top kick (1918) and is often addressed informally as “top.”
Use of the term sergeant-major to denote the highest rank of NCO is relatively recent, dating only to 1802. The title has been around since the 16th century, but in previous ages referred to an officer’s rank.
In the US military, the top-most rank, sergeant major of the army and the other services’ equivalents, are held by one individual at any given time.
Individual ranks and titles are not the only hierarchy in the military. There is an organizational hierarchy as well.
The smallest unit is a squad, from the French escouade (1649), in the infantry, a section in artillery, or a crew in armor. These range from four to eleven persons and are led by a staff sergeant.
Several squads make up a platoon. The word is from the French peloton, literally little ball (1637). A platoon consists of about 40 infantrymen, four tanks, or three or four artillery pieces. Platoons are led by lieutenants.
The general term for the next larger unit is company, although other terms are in use depending on the type of unit. In the artillery, this sized unit is called a battery (1555). In the cavalry it is a troop (1590) and in the air force it is known as a flight. These units are commanded by captains and have 100-150 soldiers.
Three to four companies constitute a battalion, from the French battaillon. The word dates to the 16th century, but the modern sense dates to 1708. In the cavalry (1702) or the air force (1912), this sized unit is called a squadron, from the Italian squadrone or square. The original 16th century military sense referred to a square of soldiers. Battalions and squadrons are commanded by lieutenant colonels and have between 500 and 1,000 soldiers, depending on the type of unit.
Naval squadrons (1588) consist of a number of ships and are commanded by a senior captain (commodore) or admiral. In modern navies, squadrons are generally composed of ships of like type and are primarily administrative and logistical organizations. At sea, ships are organized into task forces (1941) or battle groups, centered around one or more aircraft carriers or cruisers. Task forces are not permanent organizations, consisting of ships brought together for a specific mission.
Ground forces also organize into task forces. Battalions will typically trade companies before going into battle, one infantry company joining two armor companies to form an armored task force under the command of the armor battalion commander, or one armor company and two of infantry forming an infantry task force. When companies swap platoons they create combined arms company teams.
The Marine Corps equivalent of a task force is the Marine Expeditionary Unit. The MEU is built around a battalion, reinforced with an air squadron and other units. An MEU is commanded by a colonel.
Several, usually three, battalions form a brigade, ultimately from the Italian brigata, literally company or crew, after brigare, to brawl or fight. The current military sense dates to 1637. Brigades are commanded by colonels. The air force equivalent is called a wing (1915).
US cavalry brigades are called regiments, from the Latin regimentum, to rule. Military use of the term dates to 1579. Other than in the cavalry, US army regiments are historical designations only. The US Marine Corps has regiments as well, which form the nucleus of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade. An MEB is commanded by a general officer.
A division consists of three maneuver brigades (infantry or armor) and an artillery brigade, or divarty (div[ision] + art[iller]y). Divisions are commanded by major generals. The current military sense dates to the 19th century, although use to mean a military unit of some size is several centuries older.
A US Marine Corps division goes into combat as part of a Marine Expeditionary Force, which is the division reinforced with an air wing and logistical units. An MEF is commanded by a lieutenant general.
Several divisions form a corps, a clipping of the French corps d’armée. English use dates to the early 18th century. An army corps is commanded by a lieutenant general and is the largest combat unit. The commandant of the US Marine Corps is a general.
The RAF equivalent of a corps is a group (1922). The US Air Force does not have an equivalent unit.
The echelon above corps is an army, fleet, or air force, depending on the service. These are not combat units, existing as administrative and logistical organizations. In WWII, these larger units did operate on the battlefield and multiple armies were even organized into army groups.
Air Assault, adj., descriptive of infantry troops trained in helicopter operations, also airmobile, c.1965.
Airborne, adj., descriptive of infantry troops trained in parachute operations, 1937.
Armor, n., tanks and other fighting vehicles equipped with metallic protection. From the Old French armeüre, ultimately from the Latin armatura, c.1900 for the modern sense.
Artillery, n., cannon, rockets, and missiles. From the Old French artillerie, the modern sense of artillery as cannon dates to c. 1533.
Cavalry, n., mobile, lightly armed troops suitable for reconnaissance and screening operations. Originally mounted on horses, cavalry are now mounted on either helicopters (air cavalry) or armored vehicles (armored cavalry). From French, ultimately from the Latin caballarius, horseman, 1591.
Commando, n., generic term for a highly trained soldier who engages on raids and reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, also special operations. The term is from the Portuguese word for war party, used to denote Portuguese and Boer paramilitary bands that conducted raids in southern Africa, initially against natives (1791) and later against the British (1899). The modern sense was first used by the British army in 1940.
Green Beret, n., a type of US special operations soldier specialized in training and leading foreign troops and conducting counter-insurgency operations. From the distinctive headgear they wear, 1955.
Infantry, n., a body of foot soldiers or foot soldiers generally. From the French infanterie, ultimately from the Latin infantem, youth, soldier, 1579. Mechanized infantry is mounted on armored vehicles, 1928.
Ranger, n., the name used to designate an American commando, 1941.
Aegis, n., a weapon system carried aboard some cruisers and destroyers that provides defenses against enemy aircraft and missiles for a naval task force. From the Greek name for the shield carried by Athena, a word of uncertain etymology.
Aircraft Carrier, n., a warship specifically designed to launch and recover combat aircraft, 1919. US aircraft carriers are designated with the letters CV or CVN (nuclear powered); the USS Nimitz, for example, is CVN-68.
Battleship, n., a surface combatant of the heaviest class, a dreadnought. A clipping of line-of-battle ship, a ship powerful enough to sail in the line of battle, 1794. The first modern battleship was the HMS Dreadnought (hence the secondary name), launched in 1906. US battleships were designated with the letters BB; the USS New Jersey was BB-62. There are no battleships currently in commission in any navy.
Bomber, n., an aircraft that drops ordnance on targets on the ground, especially a plane specifically designed for that mission, 1917. US bombers are designated with a letter B (bomber) for heavy, long-range bombers and a letter A (attack) for lighter, short-ranged aircraft. Hence the B-52 Stratofortress and the A-10 Thunderbolt.
Capital Ship, n., the most important or powerful type of warship in a navy, traditionally a battleship, but since WWII the term has been applied to aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines as well. 1652.
Cruise Missile, n., a guided, pilotless jet aircraft carrying a warhead and able to fly at low altitudes, 1959. Cruise missiles can be designed for either anti-ship and land-attack missions.
Cruiser, n., a warship designed to cruise, as opposed to sailing in the line of battle, 1679. The verb to cruise originally meant to sail without a specific destination port in order to protect merchant ships, capture enemy ships, or conduct other missions, 1679. In modern use, cruisers provide air defenses for aircraft carriers and other ships as well as anti-ship and land-attack missile capability. US cruisers are designated with the letters CG (C for cruiser, G for Guided missile); the USS Ticonderoga is CG-47.
Cutter, n., a small, fast warship. The term dates to 1745 and is from the verb to cut, although the exact metaphor is uncertain. It may refer to cutting the water or simply to traveling swiftly. The term is now used by the US Coast Guard as a generic term for their warships that are longer than 65-feet in length.
Destroyer, n., a small, fast warship designed to escort other ships, providing air, submarine, and small-craft defenses. Originally, a clipping of torpedo-boat destroyer, from its task of protecting battleships from small torpedo boats, 1893. US destroyers are designated with the letters DD, or DDG for guided-missile destroyers; the USS Arleigh Burke is DDG-51.
Fighter, n., a high-speed aircraft for general purpose combat missions, especially one designed to shoot down enemy aircraft, 1917. US fighters are designated with a letter F, as in the F-15 Eagle. WWII-era fighters were designated with a P, for pursuit, as in P-51 Mustang.
Frigate, n., a small, fast warship designed for escort duties. The term is from the Italian fregata and is of unknown etymology, 1585. The term originally referred to the class of ships below the line of battle, a cruiser. Since 1943, the term has been used to refer to anti-submarine escort vessels. US frigates are designated with the letters FF, or FFG for guided-missile frigates; the USS Oliver Hazard Perry is FFG-7.
Gun, n., in military parlance, a gun is a cannon that delivers projectiles at high velocity and flat trajectory. From the Middle English gunne, c.1384, probably a hypocoristic form of the female name Gunnhildr.
Howitzer, n., a cannon that delivers projectiles at medium velocity and high trajectories. From the German Haubitze, catapult, c.1700.
Machinegun, n., a firearm that is mechanically loaded and fired and is capable of continuous fire, 1867.
Mortar, n., an indirect-fire weapon that fires projectiles at low velocity and very high trajectory. From the Old English mortere, the military sense dates to 1558.
Pistol, n., a firearm that is held and fired with one hand. From the French pistole, c.1570. An earlier form was pistolet.
Rifle, n., a handheld firearm with a spirally grooved bore to spin the projectile, thereby increasing accuracy. From the verb meaning to carve a groove in a weapon’s barrel, 1635, which is from the French rifler, to scratch or scrape. The word is used as a type of firearm from 1770 and as the name for a groove in a firearm’s barrel from c.1751.
Rocket, n., an engine propelled by burning fuel in a combustion chamber and releasing the exhaust through a nozzle, a bomb propelled by a rocket engine. From the Italian rocchetta or little distaff, after the shape, 1611. The word is ultimately of Germanic, not Latin, origin however.
Submarine, n., a boat designed to operate below the surface of the sea, From sub- + marine, 1899. Submarines come in two broad classes. Attack submarines hunt and destroy surface ships and other submarines. Missile submarines are undersea missile platforms; ballistic missile subs carry intercontinental nuclear missiles; guided missile subs carry shorter-ranged, conventionally armed missiles. US submarines are designated with the letters SS, plus N for nuclear-powered boats and B for ballistic missile subs or G for guided missile subs. All US submarines currently in service are nuclear powered. The USS Los Angeles is SSN-688; the USS Tennessee is SSBN-734; the USS Ohio is SSGN-726. Submarines are referred to as boats, unlike other large naval vessels which are ships.
Tank, n., an armored fighting vehicle with a tracked carriage and mounting a gun. From a code name used to disguise the shipment of the first tanks to the front, 1915.
Slang & Jargon
AAA, n., pronounced / triple a /, abbreviation of anti-aircraft artillery.
Airedale, n., navy, an aviator or air crew. From a pun on air and the breed of dog, 1942. Sometimes used in the other services.
Air Superiority, n., dominance in air power that allows air operations without prohibitive interference from the enemy and that prohibitively interferes with enemy air operations, 1935. Also used as an adjective to describe fighters and missions designed to shoot down enemy aircraft.
Air Supremacy, n., dominance in air power such that the enemy cannot effectively resist or mount its own air operations, 1916.
Angels, n., altitude, specifically a thousand feet of altitude. Originally RAF radio code, 1943.
Auger-in, v., to crash an aircraft, from the idea of boring into the earth, 1944.
Bandit, n., a hostile aircraft, 1942. Cf. bogey.
Bingo, interj. & n., air force, an empty fuel tank, the condition of being low on fuel, started as radio code for a pilot announcing he had to return to base, 1956.
Black/Brown-Shoe, n., navy. A black-shoe is a non-aviator, and a brown-shoe is an aviator or (since c. 1970) a submariner. From the practice of surface officers of wearing black shoes with khaki uniforms and aviators and submariners of wearing brown ones, c.1950.
Bogey, n., an unidentified aircraft, 1943. From the sense of bogey meaning phantom or ghost. Cf. bandit.
Boomer, n., a ballistic missile submarine, 1976.
Bounce, n. & v., an attack on an unsuspecting enemy aircraft, an aerial ambush, to make such an attack, 1943.
Brown water/blue water, adj., navy. These two adjectives distinguish types of fleets or operations. Blue water denotes fleets with global reach or operations on the high seas. Brown water denotes craft or operations in coastal regions and rivers.
BUF, n., nickname for a B-52 Stratofortress, acronym for Big Ugly (Fat) Fucker, 1968, also BUFF.
Bug out, v. & n., army, to retreat or flee from battle, to desert. Also, a retreat or rout, 1950.
Buster, v., naval aviation, to hurry, 1986.
Dogface, n., army, a soldier, especially a low-ranking one, a private, 1930. Originally an adjective, “dawg-faced soldier,” meaning ugly. Adjectival use is non-military in origin and dates to 1849.
Dogfight, n. & v., combat between aircraft, 1919. From an 1880 sense of the term to denote a general melee or fight.
Dogrobber, n., army, an orderly or aide de camp. Originally used to denote a soldier who pilfers food or scrounges other material, 1832. Used to denote an orderly or aide from 1863. Also a verb meaning to serve as an orderly or aide, 1878.
Frag, n. & v., a fragmentation bomb or grenade, 1943, to kill someone, especially a superior officer, with a fragmentation weapon, 1970. Also a clipping of fragmentary order, an amendment to a previously issued order, also frago, 1962.
Hangar queen, n., an aircraft that habitually breaks down or requires maintenance, 1943.
Hump, n. & v., a laborious march, to carry a heavy load on a march. Originally Australian slang, c. 1851. Came into US military use during the Vietnam War.
John Wayne, adj., something daring, reckless, or self-consciously heroic. Also used as a generic adjective for military items, e.g., John Wayne can opener, John Wayne hat, John Wayne candy bar. From the name of the film star, 1960. Also a verb meaning to attack recklessly.
Click, n., a kilometer, 1962. Also klick.
Leg, n., a soldier who is not qualified as a parachutist. Clipping of straight leg, a reference to airborne troops bending their legs at the knee when landing, 1964. Also used as an adjective for persons and things that are not airborne, e.g., leg infantry.
Milk run, n., an air combat mission that encounters little opposition and sustains no casualties, 1944. From an earlier use to mean a supply flight, 1943.
Nugget, n., naval aviation slang for a student pilot or junior officer, 1966.
Old Man, The, n., the commanding officer of a unit or ship, regardless of age, 1830.
Ringknocker, n., disparaging term for a graduate of West Point, from the supposed habit of said graduates to knock their class rings on a table to signal group solidarity to other West .
Grunt, n., an infantry soldier, 1962. Applied to marines since 1968. Probably from the sound made while performing manual labor, but possibly from an older telephone/power slang term for a lineman, 1926.
Gyrene, n., disparaging term for a marine. Of unknown origin; possibly a jocular adaptation on the Greek gyrinos, meaning tadpole, and a reference to the marine’s amphibious mission. Often thought to be a combination of G.I. + [ma]rine, but this is unlikely as it appears half a century before G.I.. First appears in 1894 in Naval Academy slang.
Shavetail, n., disparaging nickname for a second lieutenant. From the old US Army practice of shaving the tails of its mules, 1846. Applied as a nickname for junior officers by 1891.
Skipper, n., informal term of address for the captain of a ship. From the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German schipper, or sailor, from 1390.
Smart bomb, n., a munition guided to its target by optical, laser, radar, or other means, 1972. Also dumb bomb, an unguided munition. Officially known as Precision Guided Munitions, or PGMs.
Sortie, n., an operational flight of a single combat aircraft, 1918. Earlier use to mean an attack by a besieged garrison against the investing force. From the French meaning a going out.
Warthog, n., nickname for the A-10 Thunderbolt. From its ungainly appearance. Despite the nature of the name, it is bestowed with fondness and is not disparaging.
World, the, n., the United States. Used especially by soldiers stationed overseas and in phrases like back in the world.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton