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A Draftee's Dictionary

World War II may be remembered for a number of reasons, and    probably the least of these is that it provided a king‑size fund of new slang for the diversion of lexicographers.

       –From "Dogfaces and Dog Soldiers" by Jonathan E. Lighter, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Name Society, December 28, 1974, in New York City.

   The Army of 1940-1 actively encouraged the use of slang among the newly enlisted, and conscripted. The Army might have done this to create a sense of community and shared good humor among a large male cohort, many of whom would just as soon have not been in uniform. That is pure speculation, but proof that the Army itself was sowing the seeds for a new brand of war slang was not.

    Beginning on December 11, 1940, all new recruits and draftees were issued a slim paperback entitled  Basic Field Manual – Soldiers Handbook, which contained a GLOSSARY OF COMMON MILITARY EXPRESSIONS. The glossary served as the baseline for the rich body of slang and terminology which developed during the course of the war. The original list contained only 44 terms, which are marked in the glossary which follows with the notation  "Soldiers Handbook".[i]
One of the byproducts of the Tennessee maneuvers was a recognition that army slang was evolving in the field, which was seen as a sign of strong morale among the troops. The slang tended to be irreverent and relevant.  "The latest word to come out of Army maneuvers in Tennessee is 'Bivouacky'", proclaimed an Army press release which defined the term: "'Bivouacky' in blitzlanguage means slap-happy or punch-drunk from being in the field or in bivouac too long."


   Additionally, a "Glossary of Army Slang" had been distributed by the Public Relations Division of the US Army in the summer of 1941, much of which was reprinted in Fall, 1941 issue of the journal American Speech. During the period in which the 1941 maneuvers were in full swing, the Army issued a series of press releases entitled "BEHIND THE HEADLINES IN OUR ARMY", which carried updates on new slang. [ii]


   Elbridge Colby, a summa cum laude graduate Columbia University, was the most important early collector of Army Slang. An army officer who had collected army slang for many years published his first article on the talk of the new draftee army in July, 1941, in Our Army magazine. The article, entitled "The Talk of the Troops," opened with the line, "Just at the very minute when you turn from state highway in between the Garrison dates, you enter a different world, a world of more orderly life, a world of more honest living, and also a world of different language, new and strange to civilian folk."[iii] [1]
   Before Pearl Harbor, commercial publishers and printers were offering dictionaries of military and several books on the draft contained extensive glossaries. Probably the most popular of these was the glossary embedded in Park Kendall's Gone with the Draft—Love Letters of a Trainee  published by Grosset & Dunlap in tk 1941. Given the sensibilities of the time, these published works shied away from scatology and obscenity. SOL in Kendell's dictionary stands for "sure out of luck" when everyone in uniform knew it meant "shit out of luck."  [iv]
   Here then is a lexicon of the slang that was in place at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  One can easily see that the terms dwell on everyday life in a peacetime army with much devoted to glib nicknames for food and Army discipline. Once Americans got into combat the slang will get a bit darker but still remain essentially playful.


     Andy Gump —A person with a small chin and prominent nose, from the cartoon character of the same name.
     Armoured heifer  — Condensed milk, because it came in a metal can.  
     Army lids — Radio operators, so called because they "talk through their hats." (As reported in Newsweek, March 10, 1941) In the common slang of the era, a hat was called a lid.     

     Army strawberries — Prunes. (Glossary 1941)
    AWOL — An unauthorized absence, standing for "absent without leave". This term was uttered either as an acronym (A—wall) or spelled out as an initialism. (Soldiers Handbook)



   Baby carriage — Cart used to carry heavy machine gun.
   Bathroom stationary — Toilet paper. 
   Battery acid — Coffee, also known as ink, blackout, and paint remover.  
   Bean gun — Mobile kitchen which often traveled with other vehicles including those which carried artillery.   
   Belly robber — The cook. 
   Big John — A recruit from the country, a bumpkin. 
   Black hawk — Army necktie worn with the dress uniform. 
   Blame Hitler — The answer to all complaints of every variety.     
   Blind — A money fine of a court-martial sentence. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Bob-tail — A dishonorable discharge. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Bog-pocket — Tightwad.
   Brig — Army jail. Gone With the Draft also lists can, clink, hoosegow, mill, playhouse, crow-bar hotel, and "in the moosh" among other synonyms. 
   Buck private  — A private without any specialist's rating. (In "The Army has a Word for it," from The Army and Navy Register, November, 1939. Hereafter 1939.)[v]
   Bubble dancing — Dishwashing.
   Bucking for orderly — Extra efforts for personal appearance when competing for the post of orderly to the commanding officer. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Bunk fatigue — Reclining on a bed during a lull in drills or on an afternoon off. (1939)
   Bust — To reduce a noncommissioned officer to the grade of private. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Butcher — An Army surgeon.
   Button chopper — The laundry.  


   Cabbage — American money. 
   Carrier pigeon — Serviceman acting as officer's messenger.
   Cat beer — Milk. 
   Chickenshit—Pointless, unnecessary attention to military detail. This was a term which at the time was seen as a byproduct of the Yoo-hoo episode. The troops took the Yoo-hoo episode in stride, singing an improvisation of the old World War I song as they marched, "Old Ben Lear, he missed his putt, parley voo." [vi] [2]

   Chili bowl — Regulation haircut.  
   China clipper — Dishwasher. 
   Chow hound — Heavy eater; "soldier who makes eating a career" according to Gone with the Draft. 
   Circus water — Iced drinks with meals. 
   Cits — Civilian clothing. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Civvies —  Civilian clothing.
   CO or KO. — Commanding officer. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Crash — Omlette.


   Devil's piano — Machine gun.
   Dog Fat —  Butter.   
   Dog Show — Foot inspection.  
   Dogface —  A soldier with long experience.    
   Dogtags — Identification disks. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Doughboy (or dough) — An infantryman.     
   Dud — An unexploded shell. (Soldiers Handbook)



   Egg in your beer — "Too much of a good thing."



   Fat friends — Observation balloons. 
   Feather merchant — Civilian working for the military. 
   Field, in the — Campaigning against an enemy under actual or assumed conditions. (Soldiers Handbook)
   File — A column of men, one behind the other. (Soldiers Handbook)          
   French leave —  AWOL. (Glossary)




   G.I. — (1) Government issue; galvanized iron. (Soldiers Handbook) (2) ." G.I.[1] was gradually adopted into Army slang in numerous phrases, becoming synonymous with the Army, and later it was commonly used to describe an individual infantryman, just as doughboy had been used in the Great War.  The use of the term G.I. to describe an individual did not really take hold until the latter half of the war. As late as April 1943, an article on Army slang by Private Richard A. Herzberg in the  journal Word Study said the use of G.I. to mean a soldier himself was "a comparatively rare usage." Toward the end of the war, it carried great significance. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, alluding to the death of Ernie Pyle, war correspondent and confidant of many soldiers, said: "Every G.I. in Europe—and that means all of us—has lost one of his best and most understanding friends."
   G.I. cans – (1) Ashcans or garbage cans. This term was in use in the army long before World War II; in this instance ,the G.I. stood for galvanized iron. (2) An artillery shell. (3) A cooking vessel.  (Army)

   G.I. haircut — Hair cut to less than one inch. (Gone with the Draft)  

   Goldbrick — Soldier with a talent for avoiding disagreeable work.

   Goldfish —  Salmon. (1939) 

   Gravel-agitator — Infantryman.
   Greaseball – A motor or aviation mechanic.
   Guard house lawyer — A person who knows little but talks much about regulations, military law, and soldiers "rights".  The word "rights" is in quotation marks in the original, suggesting that such rights are less than a given.  (Soldiers Handbook) 




   Hash mark. — A service stripe. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Hike — To march. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Hit the silk — Use a parachute.
   Hitch — An enlistment period.  (Soldiers Handbook)


   I.C. — Inspected and condemned. (Soldiers Handbook)


   Java and sidearms —  Coffee, milk, and sugar.
   Jawbone — Credit. To buy without money. (Soldiers Handbook).
   Jeep — "Reconnaissance truck; also known as a jitterbug," according to Gone with the Draft.  In the months before Pearl Harbor, "Jeep" had multiple meanings, including the workhorse vehicle officially known as the "1/4 ton, 4x4, command reconnaissance car". In November, 1941, Captain E.B. Nichols of the Second Army warned soldiers not to use the term at all because it has so many meanings. Nichols said: "A soldier says his commanding officer needs a jeep to take a ride out into the wood, another says one just took off and flew away. Maybe another says a jeep has just warned that bombers are coming over. Some say that jeeps carry weapons. Others say they don't." Among the articles that soldiers called jeeps were trucks, command cars, scout cars, armored scout cars, mechanical air raid sentries, mechanical air antiaircraft guns and aimers, and the small observation planes used by field artillery.[vii] Indeed, the bantam cars themselves, as Elbridge Colby pointed out in the 1943 2nd edition of Army Talk, were in different places variously called "bantams,"  "jeeps," "peeps," "blitzbuggies," and even "jaloppies."[viii]
   Joe Blow — Any soldier.
   Juice jerker — Electrician.


   Kick — A dishonorable discharge. (Soldiers Handbook)
   K.P. — Kitchen police. (Soldiers Handbook) Writing in Our Army, Elbridge Colby noted that after the 1940 draft began, "… newspaper photographers like nothing better than to catch a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller or a high government official peeling a pile of potatoes or onions into a bucket of water."




   Lance jack — A temporary or acting corporal with the same  duties and authority of a regularly appointed corporal, but without the pay of the grade. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Landing gear — Legs.




   Maggie's drawers — Red flag used on rifle range to indicate a miss. (Glossary)
   Meat ball/Meatball —  (1) Inept soldier. (mg) (2) The last day of an enlistment, when a soldier turns in his equipment and is discharged at 11:00 a.m. So, when a soldier was asked how much time he has left, he was liable to say, "22 days and a meat ball."
   Meat wagon — An army ambulance.
   Mess gear — A soldier's individual mess kit, knife, fork, spoon, and cup. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Misery pipe — Bugle. 

   Mitt flopper —A soldier who does favors for his superiors, or salutes unnecessarily; a "yes man".
   Motorized cocktail shaker—A tank.
   Motorized dandruff — Insects.
   M.P. — Military police. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Mud flats — Army camp.    
   Mule skinner — A teamster. (Soldiers Handbook)




   Noncom — A noncommissioned officer. (Soldiers Handbook)




   O.D. — Olive drab, or officer of the day. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Old num — The company commander; commanding officer. (Soldiers Handbook)
   On the carpet — Called before the commanding officer for disciplinary reasons. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Over the hill — To desert. This term which appeared in the Soldier's Handbook soon became an element in the acronym OHIO for over the hill in October. [ix]




   Pace. — A step 30-inches long. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Pea shooter —  (1) rifle. (2) pursuit plane. 
   Pecker checker— A medic.  (A major job being checking for VD.)

   Peep — A bantam car; used in organizations in which jeep is applied to larger vehicles; the son of a jeep.

   Piece — Rifle or weapon. (Soldiers Handbook)

   Pillow pigeons — Bed bugs. 

   Popeye — Spinach.  

   Prune — An "inefficient airman"

   Ptomaine domain — Mess hall. 

   Punk and plaster — Bread and butter. 
   Pup tent — Shelter tent. (Soldiers Handbook)




   Red-leg — An artilleryman. (1939)

   Repple depples — Replacement depots.
   Re-up or take-on — To reenlist. (Soldiers Handbook)




   Sand and specks  — Salt and pepper.
   Selectee — Men inducted into the army through the Selective Service Act of 1940 were known as selectees, after the act by which they were brought in.

   See the chaplain — Stop grousing. 
   Sewer trout — White fish. 
   Shave tail — A second lieutenant. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Shivering Liz  — Jello, also shimmy pudding. 
   Short arm exam--Checking for  VD (usually in a surprise, pre-revile "raid" by medics.
   Skipper — The company commander. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Slum –  A palatable and nourishing form of liquid hash; sometimes applied to any meal, as in "It's time for slum." Elbridge Colby collected this bit of doggerel on the subject:
                            The meat was rotten and the spuds were bum;
                            So they cooked them together and called it slum.
    Slum burner – Army cook.
    SNAFU/snafu (pronounced snaffoo) —  A completely confused situation, short for "situation normal all fucked (fouled) up". It is defined in a 1944 slang dictionary as "... temporary turmoil resulting from an abrupt change in orders ..."  The slang guides of the day insisted that the f-word was either "fouled" or "fuddled." The first report of the use of this term outside of the military came during the Louisiana Maneuvers when Henry Allen reported in his October 1, 1941 "Washington Merry-Go Round" in the Washington Post: "Popular expression in the new citizen army, 'Situation normal, everything snafoo.'"

    Skunk Hollow —  The barracks.    

    Shit-On-a-Single or S.O.S.  —  Chipped or creamed beef on toast.
    Submarine — A bedpan. 

    Sugar report —  Letter from a sweetheart. (Glossary)




    Taxi up — Come here. (Glossary)

    Terrier with shamrocks – Corned-beef and cabbage.

    Tiger meat — Beef. (Glossary)

    Toothpick village – Name for the wooden barracks hastily erected in the winter of 1940-1 and beyond.

   Top sergeant or top kick — The first sergeant. (Soldiers Handbook)
   Type C — C-rations; canned rations. (gwtw)
   Typewriter  — Machine gun. (1939).




Valley Forge — Any temporary tent-camp during cold weather.




   Walkie-Talkie —  A small, portable two-way field radio. According to American Speech for February, 1941, "The first portable two-way set was developed in 1933 in the laboratories of the Signal Corps. Walkie-Talkie was the nickname given by soldiers to the first sets made by Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, but as popularity of the device grew, 'walkie-talkie' slipped into official Army jargon and is now applied to all similar sets."   
   Walking dandruff — Cooties. (gwtw)


   Yearling — Draftee. 
   Yellow-leg — A cavalryman. (1939)
   Zebras — Non-commisioned officers (because of their stripes).  
   Zombie — "Soldier who falls in next to lowest category in Army classification tests. [x]



[1] Elbridge Colby, who attained the rank of Colonel in the Army, went on to head the Journalism Department at George Washington University from 1948-1958. He published scholarly articles and books, including many about the military and China. His only son was William Colby, head of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1973-1976.
   [2]  The press release went on to identify other slang words coined by "the blitzmen of the armored forces" to  include "mechanics dandruff" for red bugs, spiders, or ants, "galloping G. I. can" for a tank, and "let 'er eat" for speed up.  If one of the boys wants you to keep quiet, he'll probably tell you to "quit slipping your clutch." The Army came up with its own new word during the maneuvers when it tried to deter soldiers from using civilian's telephones to call home as "unwarlike."


Glossary Notes


[i] War Department FM 21-100 Basic Field Manual, Soldier's Handbook Washington, DC ' Government Printing Office  1940,  239. 
[ii] Rebecca Onion "Some Choice Bits of Slang From American Soldiers Serving in WWII. / Glossary of Army Slang," American Speech, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Oct., 1941).
[iii] Elbridge Colby, "The Talk of the Troops," Our Army, July, 1941, 3-5; Elbridge Colby, Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech, 2nd ed. ( Princeton University Press, 1943).
[iv] Park Kendall, Gone with the draft; love letters of a trainee (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1941).
[v] ARMY AND NAVY REGISTER, 18 November 1939, pg. 3, col. 2:
[vi] Creamer, From BEHIND THE HEADLINES IN OUR ARMY, 1941, no. 7, pg. 2. 
[vii] AP "'Jeep' Means So many things, Army confused,"  Seattle Daily Times, November 15, 1950, 3. Will
[viii] Colby, Army Talk, xi.
[ix]  OHIO was a bone fide acronym even before the term acronym had entered the English language. The term made its debut in a 1943 issue of American Notes and Queries and was traced to a group at Bell Telephone Laboratories who had created the term (from akros for tip and nym for name) for a pamphlet they had created to keep workers abreast of the latest initialized titles for weapons systems and war agencies.
[x] This Appendix relied to large degree on the author's book War Slang, which was published in three separate updated editions (Pocket Books, 1994; Potomac Books, 2004 and Dover Publications, 2014.)

Draftee in Louisiana September 1941.