How Violence Increases Our Vocabulary

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 conquerers, and skedaddle signified retreat during the Civil War. And if you've ever had a snafu ("Situation Normal: All F'ed 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 playe 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 for 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 WWII, 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.

(Image credit: Flickr user drakegoodman)

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 fliegerabwehrkanone, the German word for anti-aircraft guns. After a generation, the meaning shifted so that catching flak now means absorbing criticism instead of cannonfire.

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. Marines first used it a 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 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 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 uses 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.


How Violence Increases Our Vocabulary was written by Mark Peters. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the May/June 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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Undermining wasn't usually to get into a building via the mine; more usually the mine was dug under the level of the walls, then the supports of the mine set on fire. The tunnel would collapse and the wall above it collapse as well. St. Andrews castle has an extant example of a mine, as well as the defenders counter-mine.

In WW1 mines were dug under enemy trench positions, filled with explosives and detonated - again, the point not being to use the mine to get into the enemy positions. William Hackett's VC citation shows the dangers that the tunnelers faced:
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