Soldier Slang in Iraq

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Fightin’ words: Iraq giving us colorful terms
by Chris Vaughn

Left: Military slang is becoming so mainstream women are wearing panties that support the troops.

Soldier Six-Pack walks up to a new soldier somewhere in Iraq.

“You new in the sandbox?” Soldier Six-Pack asks. “You’d better ali baba some hillbilly armor for that Hummer ‘cuz the muj will get you unless you’re a fobbit. We don’t stay long in Mortaritaville.”

This is the lingo — cleaned up, of course, and a tad overdone — of the American serviceman in Iraq, in the fourth year of a war that is spawning military slang for a new generation.

Some of these new words have recently been christened with a form of legitimacy — entries in the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, written by a lexicographer who works for that august publishing house, the Oxford University Press…

     

“The longer the engagement and the more people involved, the more words come back,” said Grant Barrett, the author of the book and an editor of slang dictionaries by trade. “Young people, under pressure and under fire, need shorthand for the big ideas. So by necessity, they create new words. They also display dark humor.”

Military slang is undoubtedly as old as war itself. The Spartans and Athenians of 2,400 years ago most certainly developed their own coarse insider language.

But rare is the war slang term that goes outside the wire (off the base). A few get picked up by the civilian world, and a few of them hang around long enough that no one remembers that men in great danger of dying thought them up.

During the Civil War, Johnny Reb and the Yanks taught us that a housewife is a sewing kit, a parlor soldier is no one to count on in battle, and the top rail is always the place to be.

Fleabag (a soldier’s sleeping bag), over the top (Climbing out of the trenches was something crazily heroic.) and basket case (a soldier who lost all four limbs in battle) all originated in the Great War of 1914-18.

In the sandbox known as Iraq, much of the slang is at someone else’s expense or is self-deprecating.

Fobbit — a combination of hobbit and forward operating base — refers to someone who never leaves the base, and the term is always used derisively. In Vietnam, the term was pogue, which comes from Person Other than Grunt.

Ali baba is used to describe an Iraqi bad guy or can be used as a verb to mean steal something. Hillbilly armor is the scrap equipment added to a Humvee in Iraq to harden it from attacks. A goat grab is a meal in which Americans eat with Iraqi tribal leaders.

“Pogey bait was the stuff in the care packages, like candy and stuff,” said Justin Parks, a Marine corporal who served in the Fallujah area. “They’d always get the good stuff first. Dine-in meant you were going to eat an MRE [meal ready to eat]. The sweatbox was the Port-A-John. ‘I gotta go to the sweatbox.'”

The enemy has always had insulting nicknames, from Redskins to Krauts to Charlie, the last of which originated with the abbreviation for Viet Cong, V.C., which was Victor Charlie in the phonetic alphabet of military radio transmissions.

Iraq is no different.

Haji is used by most soldiers and Marines as a catch-all phrase for Arabs and other Muslims. Technically a haji is someone who has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, but in Iraq, the term is more often used disrespectfully or dismissively.

In a debate in the Army Times this year over whether the term is insulting, one captain wrote that “use of the term haji is inaccurate, uneducated and a slur. But it is also necessary for combat operations.”

More specifically than haji, muj — for mujahadeen — is used to describe insurgents.

Developing slang for those in war is a way for those ‘in’ to separate themselves from those ‘out’ and to “express the inexpressible,” said James Burk, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University who studies the military. Such slang also serves a subversive purpose, he said, because it is used by people at the lowest levels of the hierarchy.

“It may not be approved by those who are exercising power over them,” Burk said.

Many of the expressions may have had subversion in their beginnings but still worked their way into everyday English.

World War II gave the language some real gems — gung ho (a military derivation of a Chinese phrase meaning to work together), Dear John (a bad-news letter from a wife or girlfriend) and snafu (the clean version: “situation normal, all fouled up”).

But beginning in World War II and reaching its apex during Vietnam, many of the slang words and phrases evolved into the variety that don’t often appear in family newspapers. More than many, actually.

Most of the best ones require a dark sense of humor and a willingness to, well, talk like a sailor.

Of the slang words that are printable, boonies came into widespread use during the Vietnam War, along with its spinoffs boonie rat and boonie hat. A shortened form of boondocks, itself a slang expression from the Spanish-American War meaning a jungle or wilderness, boonies is now suitable to describe any place that is remote.

Grunt came out of the Vietnam War to describe the everyday Marine or soldier.

Troops sometimes called a new guy a “Gomer,” though there was another term that was used far more. (See “family newspapers” above for why the word won’t appear here.)

But Barrett said not to expect many of the Iraq war terms to make it into any official English dictionary

“If military slang leaves the military, it’s remarkable that it does,” he said. “Soldier’s language tends not to leave the soldier’s world.”

WAR SLANG

CIVIL WAR

greenbacks: money

scarce as hen’s teeth: rare

parlor soldier: someone who never sees battle

WORLD WAR II

sacred cow: nickname given to the plane designed for President Franklin Roosevelt

GI: government issue, came to mean soldier

bogey: enemy aircraft in radar code

khaki-whacky: a woman who loved men in uniforms

VIETNAM

grunt: infantryman

Betty Crocker: a soldier assigned to Saigon; an insult

sky pilot: chaplain

IRAQ

hillbilly armor: steel cobbled together and added to a Humvee

fobbit: person who never leaves the forward operating base; an insult to soldiers in support operations

ali baba: a thief; also used as verb to steal

sweatbox: portable toilet


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