15 common phrases civilians stole from the US military

Marine Corps vehicle radio convoy Pendleton
A Marine motor transport operator talks to vehicle commanders during convoy training at Camp Pendleton, California, January 16, 2019.

1. ‘Balls to the walls’ (also, ‘Going balls out’)

common

Meaning: To go as fast as one possibly can.

From military aviation where pilots would need to get their aircraft flying as fast as possible. Their control levers had balls on the end. Pushing the accelerator all the way out (“balls out”), would put the ball of the lever against the firewall in the cockpit (“balls to the wall”).

When a pilot really needed to zoom away, they’d also push the control stick all the way forward, sending it into a dive. Obviously, this would put the ball of the control stick all the way out from the pilot and against the firewall.

2. ‘Bite the bullet’

Meaning: To endure pain or discomfort without crying out

Fighters on both sides of the American Civil War used the term “bite the bullet,” but it appears they may have stolen it from the British.

British Army Capt. Francis Grose published the book, “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” in 1811 and used “chew the bullet” to explain how proud soldiers stayed silent while being whipped.

3. ‘Boots on the ground’

Air Force boots shoes
US airmen at a change of command ceremony, August 17, 2019.

Meaning: Ground troops engaged in an operation

Credited to Army Gen. Volney Warner, “boots on the ground” is used to mean troops in a combat area or potential combat area.

After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term saw wide use and has ceased to refer exclusively to military operations. It can now be used to refer to any persons sent out to walk the ground in an area. It’s been employed in reference to police officers as well as political canvassers.

4. ‘Bought the farm’

Meaning: To die

Thought to date back to 1950s jet pilots, the phrase quickly spread to civilian circles. There is no clear agreement on exactly how the phrase came about.

It could be from war widows being able to pay off the family farm with life insurance payments, or farmers paying off their farms with the damage payout they’d receive when a pilot crashed on their land, or the pilots who wanted to buy a farm after they retired being said to “buy the farm early” when they died.

5. ‘Caught a lot of flak’

Meaning: To be criticized, especially harshly

Flak is actually an acronym for German air defense cannons. The Germans called the guns Fliegerabwehrkanonen. Flieger means flyer, abwehr means defense, and kanonen means cannon.

Airmen in World War II would have to fly through dangerous clouds of shrapnel created by flak. The phrase progressed in meaning until it became equated with abusive criticism.

6. ‘FUBAR’/’SNAFU’/’TARFU’

Meaning: Everything about the current situation sucks

All three words are acronyms. FUBAR stands for “F—ed up beyond all recognition,” SNAFU is “Situation normal, all f—ed up,” and TARFU is “Things are really f—ed up.” FUBAR and SNAFU have made it into the civilian lexicon, though the F-word in each is often changed to “fouled” to keep from offending listeners.

The Army actually used SNAFU for the name of a cartoon character in World War II propaganda and instructional videos. Pvt. Snafu and his brothers Tarfu and Fubar were voiced by Mel Blanc of Bugs Bunny and Porky the Pig fame.

7. ‘Geronimo’

Usage: Yelled when jumping off of something

“Geronimo” is yelled by jumpers leaping from a great height, but it has military origins.

Paratroopers with the original test platoon at Fort Benning, Georgia yelled the name of the famous Native American chief on their first mass jump. The exclamation became part of airborne culture and the battalion adopted it as their motto.

8. ‘Got your six’

Meaning: Watching your back

Military members commonly describe direction using the hours of a clock. Whichever direction the vehicle, unit, or individual is moving is the 12 o’clock position, so the six o’clock position is to the rear.

“Got your six” and the related “watch your six” come from service members telling each other that their rear is covered or that they need to watch out for an enemy attacking from behind.

9. ‘In the trenches’

trenches

Meaning: Stuck in a drawn out, tough fight.

Troops defending a position will dig trenches to use as cover during an enemy attack, reducing the chance they’ll be injured by shrapnel or enemy rounds.

In World War I, most of the war occurred along a series of trenches that would flip ownership as one army attacked another. So, someone engaged in fierce fighting, even metaphorical fighting, is “in the trenches.”

10. ‘No man’s land’

Meaning: Dangerous ground or a topic that it is dangerous to discuss

“No man’s land” was widely used by soldiers to describe the area between opposing armies in their trenches in World War I. It was then morphed to describe any area that it was dangerous to stray into or even topics of conversation that could anger another speaker.

However, this is one case where civilians borrowed a military phrase that the military had stolen from civilians. “No man’s land” was popularized in the trenches of the Great War, but it dates back to the 14th-century England when it was used on maps to denote a burial ground.

11. ‘Nuclear option’

Meaning: A choice to destroy everything rather than give in on a debate or contest

Used most publicly while discussing fillibusters in the Senate, the nuclear option has its roots in – what else – nuclear warfare.

In the Cold War, military leaders would give the commander-in-chief options for the deployment and use of nuclear weapons from nuclear artillery to thermonuclear bombs.

In the era of brinksmanship, use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets or the US would likely have ended in widespread destruction across both nations.

12. ‘On the double’

Army Special Forces Green Berets
Candidates at the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School carry a telephone pole on a ruck march as part of Special Forces Assessment and Selection, March 12, 2020.

Meaning: Quickly, as fast as possible

Anyone who has run in a military formation will recognize the background of “on the double.”

“Quick time” is the standard marching pace for troops, and “double time” is twice that pace, meaning the service member is running. Doing something “on the double” is moving at twice the normal speed while completing the task.

13. ‘On the frontlines’

Meaning: In the thick of a fight, argument, or movement

Like nuclear option, this one is pretty apparent. The front line of a military force is made up of the military units closest to a potential or current fight.

Troops on the frontline spend most days defending against or attacking enemy forces. People who are “on the frontlines” of other struggles like political movements or court trials are fighting against the other side every day.

This is similar in usage and origin to “in the trenches” above.

14. ‘Roger that’

Meaning: Yes

This one is pretty common knowledge, though not all civilians may know why the military says, “Roger that,” rather than “yes.” Under the old NATO phonetic alphabet, the letter R was pronounced, “Roger” on the radio.

Radio operators would say, “Roger,” to mean that a message had been properly received. The meaning evolved until “roger” meant “yes.” Today, the NATO phonetic alphabet says, “Romeo,” in place of R, but “roger” is still used to mean a message was received.

15. ‘Screw the pooch’

US Army soldiers RPG rocket propelled grenade
US soldiers conduct foreign weapons training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, October 25, 2017.

Meaning: To bungle something badly

“Screw the pooch” was originally an even racier phrase, f-ck the dog. It meant to loaf around or procrastinate. However, by 1962 it was also being used to mean that a person had bungled something.

Now, it is more commonly used with the latter definition.

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Marines training for harsh winter warfare in Norway also have to deal with ‘different military terms’

Marines Norway elbow bump
Marine Maj. Alex Puraty greets Maj. Gen. Lars Lervik, chief of the Norwegian Army, during Exercise Reindeer II at Setermoen, Norway, November 25, 2020.

  • Marines have become a common presence in Norway in recent years, as they train for combat in harsh Arctic conditions and on rough terrain.
  • During that training, Marines and Norwegian troops often work side by side, and they take special measures to avoid miscommunications that can foul up their operations.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

US Marines have been spending more time in Norway training for winter warfare, and in addition to harsh weather and rough terrain, they also have to navigate a language barrier.

In late November, they headed to the northern village of Setermoen for Exercise Reindeer II to train on extreme terrain and to “synchronize tactics, techniques and procedures” with their Norwegian counterparts

One particular area for alignment became obvious, according to Maj. Gen. Lars Lervik, chief of the Norwegian Army.

“One of the most important lessons we have learned is that we need a mutual understanding of what the different military terms mean, so that when an order is given, we can both act in the same way,” Lervik said.

Marines Norway
US Marines on a hike led by a Norwegian soldier during cold-weather training in preparation for Exercise Reindeer II in Setermoen, Norway, November 12, 2020.

Lervik added that he had “never seen” integration between the two forces “this good before,” but like him, a Marine official acknowledged that extra steps are needed to make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing.

“While communication among US and Norwegian forces takes place in English without any difficulty, small differences in units’ standard operating procedures, professional experiences, and, in some cases, doctrinal terminology do exist,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Europe-Africa, said in an email.

They have several methods to overcome those differences, including “nearly identical planning processes” and liaisons embedded at the brigade, battalion, and company level “to facilitate mutual understanding,” Rankine-Galloway said, adding that such liaisons have been present throughout the Marine rotations in Norway since 2017.

Marines and Norwegian soldiers also made sure that they had a mutual understanding of their tasks and procedures during planning meetings for Exercise Reindeer II.

Marines Norway
US Marines receive cold-weather survival instruction from a Norwegian soldier during preparations for Exercise Reindeer II in Setermoen, Norway, November 12, 2020.

Rankine-Galloway cited as an example a series of forward passage of lines – “a complex maneuver that occurs when a unit passes through another unit’s positions while moving toward the enemy” – that the two forces conducted during the exercise.

The maneuver “involves transferring the responsibility for an area of operations between two commanders and requires clear communication between both forces to ensure their safety and ability to carry out their missions,” Rankine-Galloway said.

Understanding and interoperability

Marines and sailors taking part in the current deployment of Marine Rotational Force-Europe arrived in Norway in late October and went through a quarantine before beginning their training.

Theirs is first of what the Corps said in August will be shorter, “episodic” deployments of varying numbers of Marines rather than the months-long rotations of several hundred Marines that the Corps started doing in Norway in 2017.

Those shorter deployments will be aligned with Norwegian exercises, which the Corps says “will allow for increased operational flexibility.”

Marines Norway
US Marines discuss their route plan during Exercise Reindeer II in Setermoen, Norway, November 26, 2020.

Broader changes to the Corps’ force structure mean other adjustments to its presence in Norway, including the removal of tanks it has stored for decades in a secret cave complex.

Other US service branches are also increasing their interactions with NATO’s northernmost member. Russia, with which Norway shares an increasingly tense border, has watched that activity warily.

US Marines train all over the world with troops who speak many different languages. A Navy planner told Insider in 2019 that language barriers typically don’t impede planning for such operations, but communicating about communicating can sometimes lead to hiccups.

In mid-2019, it was reported that Australian troops had been told not to use their country’s many slang terms around visiting Marines in order to avoid confusion.

But an Australian military spokesperson told Stars and Stripes that the officer whose comments prompted those reports was only citing “the potential to misinterpret each nation’s everyday language as an example to highlight how training together improves understanding and interoperability.”

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