A Civilian’s Guide to Military Jabs & Jargon

I served my military time in the U.S. Air Force. Now, because of that, I am often subjected to jabs from fellow veterans who served their time in other branches of the service. I’ve been called a zoomie; sometimes a flyboy (which is funny because I never once flew on an Air Force plane). I get kidded about my Air Force dress blues – they’re often referred to as the mailman’s uniform. And I’d have to agree that it does remind me of the uniform that postal employees once wore, before they were allowed to sport those snazzy Bermuda shorts and knee-high socks. The Air Force hasn’t gone there yet. But you never know.

Marines in particular kid me about that “grueling” physical test the Air Force required every year – run 1 ½ miles in 30 minutes and do 25 push-up and 25 sit-ups. Thirty years later, I do twice that every morning, while many vets my age can’t get off the couch quickly enough before they wet their pants. But I like this banter among the services. It’s a measure of camaraderie. And pride. Ya just gotta have thick enough skin to take the ribbing – and be able to give back what you get.

Now in the realm of military jargon, the uninitiated civilians among you may hear a number of terms that we throw at each other. Some are common; others not so much. A lot of the early jargon was born out of WWI and WWII. The slang term “doughboy”, for example, was used to define U.S. soldiers during the Mexican-American War and World War I. Depending on your source, “doughboy” can refer to the state of their brains, their diet, their earlier professions, or 65 other things. It’s usually an Army term. In World War II, the word “doughboy” gave way to a more sophisticated term – “dogface”. I think it fits many of my Army compadres, even today. But you can only imagine where that term came from… I’m not aware of any recent terms that have sprung up for my Army pals. I generally say “hey, you!” when I cross them. Most simply respond “Huh?” It works…

Navy guys have always been known as “swabbies”, from a stereotypical claim that they are always swabbing the deck of a ship. Truthfully, I don’t know many sailors these days who even know what a mop is, so that term must be dying out. They’re also called “squids”, another connotation to their time at sea, and a term I really like – you can do a lot with a word like “squid”. However, when you really want to be cruel to a sailor, you call him seaman – with heavy emphasis on “sea” followed by a quick “min”. Try it! Now that’s truly disgusting… But it fits the aura of camaraderie.

If you serve in the Coast Guard, you take as much ribbing as the Air Force and the Navy for not being “tough ground troops”. And that’s true, because…you weren’t. Neither were we. That’s not your mission. But of all people, Navy guys likes to rib you further by referring to the Coast Guard as the “brown water navy” or the “shallow water navy”. Which I actually think is quite clever wording, implying, of course, that you never really ventured far from shore. Then again, that’s where all the beaches and bikinis are, you lucky dogs…so what does the Navy really know?

And the Marine Corps? Well, that’s an exclusive little club, much smaller than all the other branches. And they seem to have a lot more jargon, and toss many more jabs. In World War II, they were commonly called “leathernecks”, because the South Pacific sun, beating down on the back of a neck tended to give that appearance. These days, the term “leatherneck” is rarely used. There are a few other words to describe them but, unless you’re a Marine, you really shouldn’t call them “jarheads”, unless referring to the movie of that name. After all, jars come in many sizes and shapes. And there are at least three stories about the origin of “jarhead”; a couple of them are just way, way out there. You could confuse a whole battalion of them by telling too many stories.

One term that offends many Marines is referring to them as “soldiers”. It’s common for civilians to think that all those serving can be lumped together under that term. But here’s the real scoop – the word “soldier” applies to someone in the Army. Someone in the Marines is known as…well, a Marine. Now both branches certainly have “grunts” – those are the infantry guys. And they’re the ones to whom I bow lowest – the guys whose primary job is on the ground, in the trenches, going door-to-door and sometimes hand-to-hand in combat. No disrespect to other jobs in the service, but the grunt earns my highest respect. Even as I mercilessly kid him, about being dumb enough to be a grunt in the first place.

Every branch has its own reserve units. The Air Force and Army also have National Guard units, whose primary mission is to help with emergencies in the states where they reside. These Guard and Reserve units are collectively known as “weekend warriors”, because most of them are part-time, drilling every other weekend and spending their two-week summer vacations training in exotic locations – like Missouri and Kansas. These days, you won’t hear them called “weekend warriors” much – they’re as full-time as their “regular army” cousins, humping those same sand dunes in the Middle East… Al-Qaeda can’t tell the difference.

Each branch has its own primal scream, of course. The Marines grunt “ooh-rah” to just about anything. The Army has a variation that sounds like “hoo-ah”. And I’m told the Navy says “hoo-yah”, although I get a lot of quizzical looks when I tell that to Navy guys. While there are many stories about the origin of this hallowed military term and its variations, the Hebrew word “oorah” means “awaken” and, in my book, fits just about any branch of the military. Except the Air Force, of course, which sticks with “okey dokey” as its battle cry, or so the joke goes. The things we put up with for being the youngest military branch.

And that, my civilian friends, is you primer on military jabs & jargon. From a “zoomie” whose grandfather was a WWI “doughboy”, whose namesake uncle was a WWII “squid”, and whose son is a “jarhead”. But a word to the wise – be very thoughtful if you intend to use any of these terms on veterans or current servicemen or women. Some of them might not be as thoughtful in return, as they lunge for your neck in an insulted fit of rage. I guess that’s the nature of exclusive clubs. Okey dokey?

God bless our troops! At least that’s one term to which every military branch can relate.

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6 Responses

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  1. Vote -1 Vote +1George Herrmann

    Nice piece Joe.
    No matter what name we call them, they are Americans first. As a fellow American I am forever grateful to every swabbie, jarhead, coastie, doughboy and flyboy who has put on a uniform and picked up a gun to defend this nation. Now stop reading and go out and VOTE! Lots of folks have sacrificed so you have that right.

  2. Vote -1 Vote +1Larry

    Nice column Joe, however your son is going to call you out on the term Leatherneck, you’re a bit off the mark on it’s origin.

    You can look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leatherneck for a nice description.

    And as a former Marine myself, I think the following list is pretty accurate also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._Marine_Corps_acronyms_and_expressions

    All in all however, I agree that all who served, regardless of branch or occupational specialty, deserve our respect and thanks. They let the government hold their lives in its hands in order to guarantee all of us the opportunity to vote for the future. Some never made it back to partake of that privelege themselves.

    Think about them if you decide not to bother going to the polls today because you have something else to do.

  3. Vote -1 Vote +1Paul DiMarco

    Excellent piece. Thank you to you, your son, and all who served are are serving our country in the US Armed Forces.

    While on a tour of the USS Constitution a few years ago, I heard another description on where “jarhead” came from. The lower levels of the ship were not very high, perhaps 6’3″ at most. The person giving the tour mentioned that the Marines assigned to the ship tended to be taller than the average sailor, and would often bang their heads on the beams when below deck, hence the term “jarhead”. I can’t speak to the accuracy of this but it does make sense from a historical perspective.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1Larry

      I haven’t heard that one before Paul but I like it!

      We were on a tour of the Constitution many years ago that was being conducted by one of the ship’s officers.

      He told us of a battle during the War of 1812 when the helm of the Constitution was shot away and the ship’s company of Marines (about 40) were assembled to manhandle the tiller in response to the Captain’s command, allowing the ship to remain engaged.

      This allowed the Constitution to prevail in the battle and they took the wheel from the opposing ship (HMS Java) and used it to repair the damage to their own helm. (Where it remains today.)

      The officer concluded this talk by saying “as to why it took 40 Marines to do the job of two sailors… you’ll have to ask the Marines”.

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