Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Speak Military

Being a linguist, I am fascinated by all aspects of language, and particularly the field of semantics, which studies the origin and meaning of words and phrases. Listening to people speak can tell you a great deal about where they come from and what work they do, and every business, trade, and field of endeavor has its own set of terms unique to it's needs and derived from its history.

As you know from my endless reminding you of it, I spent 23 years in the Air Force dealing with my fellow blue-suiters and with the soldiers, sailors, and Marines with whom we planned and carried out the nation's defense. The military is, as are all organizations and careers, chock full of distinctive jargon and unique phrases. Here are a few military phrases you may (or may not) have heard, based on an article by Captain Victoria Hight in the Air Force Blog (and, naturally, containing my additions and editorial comments). Not all of these are unique to the Air Force, but many are …

"Stand By."

Like several of the phrases on the list, this one originated in the early days of radio communication, and most often means “wait for the next transmission.” If you've ever called a military person and had to be put on hold, you were probably asked to stand by rather than wait or hold.

"Voluntold" and "Mandatory Fun."

Voluntold combines the words "volunteer" and "told" to create an expression which implies that one is expected to volunteer for a particular task you really don't want to do, and to enjoy doing it. This is not a strictly military concept, of course, as many companies require their employees to do things on their own time, such as take part in charitable activities or make "voluntary" contributions to specific charities ... but only the military has its own term for it, as far as I know.

"… And a Wake Up"

This phrase is of obscure origin, but was probably developed by someone on an endless deployment to an undesirable location full of sand and murderous creatures to make the time remaining on the deployment seem to pass more quickly. “Five days and a wake-up” sounds a day shorter than “Six days,” and manages to convey a sense of anticipation and excitement about whatever's coming.

"Say Again."

This is another of those radio communication terms, and requests the person on the other end of the line to repeat their last message to ensure understanding and clarity of reception. One of my favorite variations of this is an expression popularized in my own office by one of my co-workers, who was fond of reading messages and saying, "Say again ... you're coming in broken and stupid" (see also broken, below)

Clock Positions (as in, "At your three o’clock")

This expression refers to a system of situational awareness for a pilot, in which the position of an object on an imaginary clock face relates its relative location to that of the pilot. Imagine yourself in the center of a clock, looking toward the 12 o'clock position ... "twelve o’clock" would be straight ahead, three o’clock would be 90 degrees to your right, and six o'clock would be directly behind you. The warning to “check your six” or simply "check six" means to look behind you for an approaching danger. The title of the classic World War II film “Twelve O’Clock High” referred to the position of an enemy aircraft located directly ahead and at a higher altitude (more than likely attacking out of the sun).


This phrase often refers to anyone who is sick or injured, or any piece of equipment or software which doesn't work. Most often email systems seem usually to be broken. It can also refer to the quality of a garbled radio transmission (see say again above).

Military Time

Most military members (and most everyone in Europe) refer to time on a 24-hour clock*, rather than as "AM" or "PM." The picture below relates the two ...

The military also generally refers to "Zulu Time" as a standard for coordination of activities across various time zones ... it refers to "Greenwich Mean Time**," or the time at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, which has long been used by the military, airlines, and others as a standard to reduce confusion.

"Squared Away."

This phrase most likely stems from having a uniform with sharp, nearly square creases, the tidy arrangement of a barracks room in which everything is put neatly in place, or a bed made with the sheets squared and stretched so tight you could bounce a coin on them. It describes an individual whose appearance and performance of duty are above reproach.

"Spun Up."

A person who is "spun up" is familiar with the current situation, and the action of getting someone (especially a senior officer) ready for a meeting or other event is often referred to as "spinning him/her up." The Air Force Blog article suggests that this term derives from the acronym SPINS, meaning "special instructions," but I have a different theory. In the early days of flight, when aircraft had more than one wing, the engine was often started by a member of the ground crew who grasped the propellor and gave it a mighty shove to get it spinning (much like starting an old car by "popping the clutch") ... you've probably seen this in the movies. I think it's more likely that this is the derivation of the term.

and finally ...

"Roger That!" or simply, "Roger."

This is yet another of those expressions from radio, and it means "I have received and understood your last transmission." It's a universal military expression to acknowledge receipt of an order.

Are there any specialized expressions you use in your daily work? Leave a comment ... inquiring minds want to know.

Have a good day. I say again, have a good day. Roger!

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Which explains the old joke in which a young woman at a party asks an old soldier why he's so glum. "I haven't had sex since 2002," he explained. "That's terrible," the young woman replied. "You're telling me?" the soldier sighed ... it's already 2130!"

** Nowadays usually referred to as Universal Coordinated Time, or UCT, so as not to piss off those who view time itself as a manifestation of colonialism.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

Mandatory fun should be a concept for civilians too.

Duckbutt said...

Smary old soldier!

Mike said...

HA! - Retiree response to 'you need to (fill in the blank).'

Grand Crapaud said...

A lot of these terms have crept over into civilian usage too.

Banana Oil said...

I always enjoy reading your comments on language, Bilbo!