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Military Language in Everyday Use

May 31, 2021

Have you ever gone AWOL? The acronym, which stands for Absent Without Leave, denotes being absent from a job or event without having given notice or gotten permission.

The abbreviation comes from the military; AWOL is the status given to soldiers who are not where they are supposed to be. If a soldier remains AWOL for more than 30 days, it’s considered a desertion.

“Going AWOL” is just one example of the many words and phrases in common use in English that originate from wartime. In this post, we’ll explore a few more.

To Bite the Bullet

Fauci: Not ready for sports, leagues must 'bite bullet,' cancel

—Reuters headline, April 29, 2020

Before anesthetics, soldiers endured the agony of medical procedures by biting down on a bullet to distract themselves from the pain.

The phrase “bite the bullet” now denotes forcing yourself to do something difficult or unpleasant, or to be brave in a difficult situation. It was first recorded in Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed.

"Bite the bullet" is similar to the phrase “dodge the bullet,” which means to avoid a difficult or unpleasant situation.


'F9' could be the blockbuster Hollywood needs to kick-start moviegoing

—New York Times headline, May 24, 2021

The term “blockbuster” is often used today to describe a movie, book, or other form of entertainment media that is widely popular and financially successful.

The term was first used in 1942, however, to describe a new, large, highly explosive bomb—big enough to destroy an entire city block.

To Catch Flak

LILLEY: Ford catches flak for doing what so many begged him to do

—Toronto Sun headline, April 22, 2021

In modern times, "to catch flak" is to receive criticism for something you say or do. This meaning was popularized in the 1960s.

During World War II, "flak" was an abbreviation for the German, "fliegerabwehrkanonen," or "flyer defense cannons." If a soldier "caught flak," it meant that they were wounded by gunshots. 

Cup of Joe

Coffee without beans? Seattle startup brews a new cup of joe

—Seattle Times headline, May 14, 2021

When someone asks for a “cup of Joe,” they are asking for a cup of coffee, but where did this phrase come from? One theory is that the phrase originated when Josephus Daniels became Secretary of the US Navy in 1913 under Woodrow Wilson and abolished the serving of alcohol aboard ships.

From then on, coffee was the strongest drink available to the disgruntled sailors, who began calling the drink “a cup of Joe" out of spite.

Loose Cannon

Clinton calls Trump a 'loose cannon,' risky choice for president

—Reuters headline, May 4, 2016

According to Merriam-Webster, we have Teddy Roosevelt to thank for the phrase "loose cannon" entering the zeitgeist. The phrase describes someone (or something) that is dangerously uncontrollable.

Before war ships had fixed-turret guns, cannons on wheels were rolled back and forth between the gunports. A cannon not properly secured could break loose and present a real hazard to sailors.

Roosevelt used this image when describing his legacy to journalist William Allan White, saying, "I don't want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm."

More Examples

  • "Deadline" – a date or time when something must be finished 
    (From the lines drawn around war prisoners that were not allowed to be passed)

  • "Flying colors" – complete success
    (From the tradition of victorious navy ships returning home with their flags flying)

  • "No man's land" – an ambiguous or uncertain situation
    (From the WWII term used to describe land between the German trenches and the allied troops)

  • "On the double” – quickly, as fast as possible
    (From the quickened marching pace for troops)

  • "Roger" – an acknowledgement, yes
    (From the old NATO phonetic alphabet, where "R" was pronounced "Roger" on the radio)

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