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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

XI. American Slang

2. War Slang

“DURING the war,” says a writer in the New York Tribune, “our army was slow in manufacturing words .… The English army invented not only more war slang than the American, but much more expressive slang. In fact, we took over a number of their words, such as dud, cootie and bus (for aeroplane) .… During the first year of [American participation in] the war the Americans had no slang word for German. Hun was used sparingly, but only by officers. Fritzie was rare. Boche was tried, but proved to be ill adapted to Americans. They seemed afraid of it, and, indeed, it was often pronounced botch. Finally, after a year all these foreign substitutes were abandoned by the enlisted men, and the German became Jerry. Curiously enough, the word was almost invariably used in the singular. We heard a soldier telling about a patrol encounter in which he and twenty companions had driven a slightly larger German force out of an abandoned farmhouse, and he said: ‘When we came over the top of the hill we found Jerry.’ He stuck to that usage all through the story. In the last year of the war the American army began to find names for various things, but the slang list of the first year was short. The French army was the most prolific of all in language, and several large dictionaries of French trench slang have already been published.”

The chief cause of this American backwardness is not far to seek. During the first year of American participation in the war few Americans got to France, and those who did found an enormous army of Britishers already in the field. These Britishers, in their three years of service, had developed a vast vocabulary of slang, and it stood ready for use. Naturally enough, some of it was borrowed forthwith, though not much. When the main American army followed in 1918 there was little need to make extensive additions to it. Frog, for Frenchman, was entirely satisfactory; why substitute anything else? So was cootie. So was bus. So was Holy Joe, for chaplain. So were blimp, Jack Johnson, whizz-bang, to strafe and pill-box. Whatever was needed further was adapted from the everyday slang of the United States. Thus, handshaker came to mean a soldier sycophantic to officers, to bust got the new meaning of to demote, and the cowboy outfit was borrowed for general military use. Most of the remaining slang that developed among the troops was derisory, e. g., Sears-Roebuck for a new lieutenant, loot for lieutenant, Jewish cavalry for the Quartermaster’s force, belly-robber for the mess-sergeant, punk for bread, canned-monkey for the French canned beef, gold-fish for canned salmon. Much that remained was obscene, and had its origin in the simple application of obscene verbs and adjectives, long familiar, to special military uses. In the “Vocabulary of the A. E. F.” compiled by E. A. Hecker and Edmund Wilson, Jr., fully 25 per cent. of the terms listed show more or less indecency; the everyday speech of the troops was extraordinarily dirty. But in this department, as I say, there were very few new coinages. In all departments, in truth, the favorite phrases were not invented in the field but brought from home, e. g., corp for corporal, sarge for sergeant, to salvage for to steal, chow for food. Even gob, doughboy and leatherneck were not new. Gob and leatherneck had been in use in the navy for a long while, though the common civilian designation for a sailor had been jackie. The origin of the terms is much disputed. Gob is variously explained as a derivative from the Chinese (?) word gobshite, and as the old word gob, signifying a large, irregular mass, applied to a new use. The original meaning of gobshite I don’t know. One correspondent suggests that gob was first used to designate sailors because of their somewhat voracious and noisy habits of feeding. He tells a story of an old master-at-arms who happened into a land aëro-station and found a party of sailors solemnly at table. “My Gawd,” he exclaimed, “lookit the gobs, usin’ forks an’ all!” Doughboy was originally applied to the infantry only. It originated in the fact that infantrymen, on practise marches, were served rations of flour, and that they made crude biscuits of this flour when they halted. Leatherneck needs no explanation. It obviously refers to the sunburn suffered by marines in the tropics. Hard-boiled seems to have originated among the Americans in France. It is one of the few specimens of army slang that shows any sign of surviving in the general speech. The only others that I can think of are cootie, gob, leatherneck, doughboy, frog, and buck-private. Hand-shaker, since the war ended, has resumed its old meaning of an excessively affable man. Top-sergeant, during the war, suffered an interesting philological change, like that already noticed in buncombe. First it degenerated to top-sarge and then to plain top. To a. w. o. l. is already almost forgotten. So is bevo officer. So are such charming inventions as submarine for bed-pan. The favorite affirmations of the army, “I’ll say so,” “I’ll tell the world,” “You said it,” etc., are also passing out. From the French, save for a few grotesque mispronunciations of common French phrases, e. g., boocoop, the doughboys seem to have borrowed nothing whatsoever. To camouflage was already in use in the United States long before the country entered the war, and such aviation terms as ace, chandelle, vrille and glissade were seldom heard outside the air-force.

The war-slang of the English, the French and the Germans was enormously richer, and a great deal more of it has survived. One need but glance at the vocabulary in the last edition of Cassell’s Dictionary or at such works as Gaston Esnault’s “Le Poilu Tel Qu’il se Parle” or Karl Bergmann’s “Wie der Feldgraue Spricht” to note the great difference. The only work which pretends to cover the subject of American war-slang is “New Words Self-Defined,” by Prof. C. Alphonso Smith, of the Naval Academy. It is pieced out with much English slang, and not a little French slang.