Almost every aspect of war spawns new words, and, over time, many of them slip into everyday use. Sometimes, they even become downright peaceful in the process. For instance, triumph used to mean a victory ceremony for Roman conquerors, and skedaddle signified retreat during the Civil War. And if you're ever had a snafu ("Situation Normal: All F'd Up"), then you owe a debt to the WWI soldiers who invented the acronym to describe the trenches. With each passing conflict, the list of pacified war words gets longer and longer.
Undermine: If your colleagues constantly undermine you, just be glad they aren't doing so in the traditional sense. Undermine, a word that dates back to the 14th century, was once a military term for digging a clandestine passage under a building to sneak up on the enemy. The term quickly turned metaphorical, but in Shakespeare's day, its literal meaning was still commonly known. He even played with it in All's Well That Ends Well, when the maiden Helena asks a soldier if there's a way to safeguard her virginity. He replies, "There is none: man, sitting down before you, will undermine you, and blow you up."
Fleabag: Starting in the 1830s, a fleabag was a soldier's bed. Although the word fleabag now seems wedded to hotel, it can be applied more broadly, as in the 1958 example from the Oxford English Dictionary, "God, how I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea-bag."
Basket case: Today, a basket case is simply a neurotic person, but during WWI, it meant a living soldier who had lost all his limbs and was brought home in a basket. The United States military denies that real baskets were ever used to carry soldiers. Regardless, the original meaning of the word is still gruesome.
Flak: Celebrities catch a lot of flak for idiotic behavior, but contemporary flak isn't what it used to be. When the term originated in the 1930s, it was short for fliegerabwehrkanome, the German word for anti-aircraft guns. After a generation, the meaning shifted so that catching flak now means absorbing criticism instead of cannon fire.
Gung ho: You may be gung ho about collecting stamps, playing solitaire, or other individual pursuits, but originally, the term was more applicable to teams. The U.S. Marine first used it as a slogan during World War II, after General Evans Carlson adapted the Chinese kung ho, which means "work in harmony." While the teamwork element of the definition has faded, the enthusiasm bit has certainly remained.
Fobbit, hillbilly armor, and IED: The war in Iraq is contributing its own new expressions. A popular word on the rise is fobbit, a term that combines FOB (forward operating base) with hobbit. The word is a derogatory term for soldiers who stay too close to base and help themselves to three square meals a day. Another expression gaining steam is hillbilly armor, a term for the scraps used to bulletproof vehicles.
Some words have already entered civilian life. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, refer to the homemade bombs created by terrorists and insurgents. A recent GQ article about inappropriate office-party behavior used it like this: "The workplace minefield is hard enough to negotiate without planting your own IEDs." So, what are the chances any of these new words will stick around? Who knows? The only thing that's certain is that as long as there are new wars, new words will crop up, too.
The article above, written by Mark Peters, appeared in the Scatterbrained section of the May - June 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
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