In honor of Veteran’s Day

Some may be surprised when they realize just how much the military has contributed to the English language. What follows is a short list of commonly used words and phrases whose roots come from military origins:

scuttlebutt: Today, this means rumors or gossip. It’s derived from the term scuttled butt, a barrel (butt) with a hole in it (scuttle), in which drinking water was stored on a ship. Sailors would gather around the scuttled butt, get a drink, and exchange news.

Flak over Berlin during World War II

flak: We know this to mean opposition or dissent, but the term originated as a German military abbreviation for “airplane defense cannon”: Fliegerabwehrkanone.

ditch: In its verb form, to ditch means to “bail out.” The term supposedly originated among WWII British pilots whose planes were shot down over the English Channel, also known as “the ditch.”

turn a blind eye: This expression stems from British Admiral Lord Nelson, who was blind in one eye. He conveniently ignored a signal from a superior’s ship to cease fire by placing his telescope to his bad eye and saying he didn’t see a thing, thus continuing the battle and ultimately winning it for the British.

A Parthian shot

rule of thumb, parting shot, keep it under your hat: These are all archery terms, referring to the sizing of a longbow, a final shot fired off after Parthian archers on horseback had ridden through an enemy formation, and a place to keep a spare bowstring, respectively.

turncoat: A traitor. Refers to the practice of turning one’s coat inside-out to hide one’s allegiance when changing sides in a battle. A close cousin of showing one’s true colors.

deadline: A firm limit; derived from a literal line drawn inside the prison yard walls, beyond which prisoners would be shot if they attempted escape.

khaki: From the Hindi for “dirt,” this popular color for slacks soon became standard issue for British soldiers in colonial India, whose bright uniforms made them easy targets.

decimate: Derives from a punishment in the Roman legion in which every tenth (deci-) man in a less-than-satisfactory unit would be killed.

taken aback: Meaning surprised or stunned, this is an old sailing term that refers to a sudden change in the wind that leaves the boat directionless until the sails can be adjusted.

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