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American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War
By Paul Dickson, Ben Lando
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Paul Dickson
All rights reserved.
CIVIL AND UNCIVIL WORDS
War Slang Before the Great War: From the War Between the States Through the War with Spain
Madeline Hutchinson was a small, attractive woman with wispy white hair, an eruptive smile, and a most infectiously gleeful Yankee "down east" voice. She was born in Weld, Maine, in 1909, the year of a great forest fire, which she says was known for decades as "the year the fire came over the mountain"; she was married and moved into her home and farm in 1931, was widowed in 1974, and died in Weld in 1991.
Madeline had a lifelong fascination with language and her own "old-fashioned" vocabulary, and she and the author of this book spent many hours discussing the subject. One thing that seemed most remarkable was the fact that her language—and life—though removed by many miles and many decades from the war, was still influenced by it.
The war? The Civil War, that is. Madeline's view of history was strong and emotional, and she seldom used that name for the war. The "Great Rebellion" or "Rebellion" was her term for the Civil War, and there was still a hint of reproach in her voice as she talked of what that conflict had done to her small town. She said, "Ninety-three men went to that war and twenty-odd men didn't come back." It is clear from what Madeline said that this sacrifice was felt by that small rural community for many decades.
Words from the war—special words—still stuck with her. SKEDADDLERS was the name for those who ran away from the war, although the history books call them deserters. Madeline added that her mother-in-law, who lived to the age of ninety-six, had seen skedaddlers as they passed through town and could show you a place where they hid.
This is a direct link to those men who ran from the Army and the draft and were on their way to Canada through Maine. A verse appeared in the Canadian press in 1864 entitled "The Cowards Are Coming," which contained this stanza:
This wretched skedaddle (I name it with pain),
Commenced in loyal lumbering Maine:
With instinctive cunning and recreant craft,
They cleared at the "smell" of the purgative "draught."
There are other examples from Madeline's vocabulary, but the point is made that the words of that war of division still live in the language of Americans. In fact, there is still division as to what to call it—the Civil War, the War Between the States, or, as Madeline termed it, the Great Rebellion.
Not only are there different names for the conflict itself, but also for its various encounters, and this confusion extends to the present. The point is driven home with this sampling: Boonsboro was the southern name for what the North called South Mountain; Chickahominy was what the North called a battle that the South called Cold Harbor; Manassas (and then Second Manassas) was the southern name for what the North called Bull Run (and then Second Bull Run); Sharpsburg was how the South recalled what the Federals knew as Antietam; Elk Horn was the southern name for what the North said was Pea Ridge; Leesburg was the southern name for what the North called Ball's Bluff; and Shiloh was the southern name for what the North called—in particular, General Grant—Pittsburg Landing.
The Civil War (1861–1865)
Without question, the Civil War spawned a slang that was both identifiable and proliferating. It was also seen as a nuisance. Here is how it was typified in an 1865 article, "A Word About Slang," by R. W. McAlpine, in the United States Service Magazine: "The existence of a slang element in the Army cannot, of course, be prevented. It came from home, where the fault lies."
What follows is a Civil War glossary that includes some terms that existed before the war but only became important during the war. It is an interesting compilation because it serves as a baseline for American military slang and shows its many early influences: the frontier, rural America, British shipping (as the item "A-1" attests), and the ancient traditions of the sea. That glossary is, in turn, followed by some of the new slang of the Spanish-American War.
about played out. Demoralized and discouraged (said of an individual or a unit).
Agnew. A shirt worn by female nurses serving with the Union Army. The garment was worn with tails out, sleeves up, and the collar open. The name came from a Dr. Agnew, who lent one of his shirts to a nurse during the 1862 Peninsula campaign and thus set the style.
Anaconda Plan. General Winfield Scott's plan to crush the South through blockade and limited military action. It was also known as SCOTT'S GREAT SNAKE or SCOTT'S SNAKE.
A-1. Prime; the best; of the highest class; first class; first-rate in every respect. The expression did not originate in the classroom. It is derived from the classification of ships in Lloyd's Register in London, England, and first appeared as an adjective in 1837. The famous firm of underwriters described the quality of a ship's hull by a letter and that of its equipment by number. "A-1" means a ship of first-class condition as to both hull and equipment.
The use of "A-1" exemplified a trend in this war to shorten and abbreviate.
In his 1865 essay, "A Word About Slang," R. W. McAlpine commented at some length on this trend: In the army, as in the walks of civil life, our language loses much by abbreviation and contraction, "letters, like soldiers, being very apt to drop off on a long march, especially if their passage happens to lie near the confines of the enemy's country." And, "abbreviations and corruptions are always busiest with the words which are most frequently in use."
Thus it is that "bombshell" became SHELL; "Minié rifle," plain MINNIE, without the accent; "Navy cut tobacco," "navy"; "commission," COMMISH; and "secessionist," SECESH. By the same process and in obedience to the same law, "Coifs revolvers" metamorphosed into "Colts"; SPONDULIX became "spons"; and "greenbacks," GREENS. A man who reenlists is a VET; one who represents another is a SUB; and it was no uncommon thing to hear a D.B. ordered to go to the "Sut's" to get "two botts" of "Whisk" for "Cap and Lute," so strong is the inclination to do away with all vowels and consonants whose utterance impedes business or lengthens the time between drinks.
A.W.O.L. Absent without official leave. Even prior to the war this term was used in the Army. Confederate soldiers caught while A.W.O.L. were made to walk about the camp carrying a sign bearing these letters. See also under World War I and under World War II.
bayonet. A soldier. A statement from Abraham Lincoln quoted in Shelby Foote's The Civil War (1959) contains the line, 'There are fifty thousand bayonets in the Union armies from the border states." See also under the Spanish-American War era.
As a dagger attached to a rifle muzzle, the bayonet has been an efficient little instrument for use in disemboweling an enemy in wartime. It took its name from the French bayonette ("knife"), which in turn was derived from the name of the lovely city of Bayonne, France, where it was first made or used. The Italian baionettata, a dagger that was whimsically called "little joker," was first manufactured in Bayonne, and the early bayonet was simply a dagger screwed to the muzzle of a rifle.
bell the cat. To encounter and cripple one of great and superior force; from the fable of the mice resolving to place a bell on the cat.
bellyache. (1) A colic. (2) To complain. This very old bit of slang has roots in the sixteenth century.
belly robber. A cook or mess sergeant. See also under World War I.
big thing. Any potentially notable event or achievement that does not come off as notable. In A Dictionary of Soldier Talk (1984), by John R. Elting, Dan Cragg, and Ernest Deal, "big thing" is explained as: "Something on the order of the mountain that labored and gave birth to a mouse; a big project that trips over its own feet. Big thing was sometimes howled in chorus, to the everlasting confusion of the recipient. Gen. George McClellan was a big-thing specialist."
big ticket. An honorable discharge from military service.
black gang. All the members of a ship's engineering department. A "seaman" sails on deck as a "sailor," while all crewmen "below" belong to the "black gang," so-called because of the soot, oil, and pitch that darkened their faces.
blizzard. An intense volley of musket fire.
Blue, the. The North and its army; from the color of its official uniform.
Blue and the Gray, the. The armies of the North and the South; so-called from the colors of the uniforms worn by the troops.
bluebacks. Confederate paper currency; from its color.
bluecoat. A soldier of the Union Army. After the war, the term saw increasing use as a nickname for a policeman.
blue light. A traitor; an early-American term still used during the Civil War, especially in the North. According to Robert Hendrickson, in American Talk (1986), it originated during the War of 1812, "when pro-British Americans flashed blue lights to British ships off the coast as a signal that Commodore Stephen Decatur's two frigates would soon be sailing from their New London, Connecticut, harbor."
blues. The blue uniform of the Union Army. According to Elbridge Colby, in Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech (1943):
The blue uniform of the army, as distinct from the khaki first introduced in Cuba and the Philippines, and the olive drab wool worn for a decade and more after 1917. It used to be standard in the service. That is why the Union Army in the Civil War was called "the boys in blue." That is why the graduating cadet at West Point sadly and gladly sang:
Well bid farewell to 'Kaydet Gray,'
And don the Army Blue.
bounty jumping. That business in the North by which a man would take a cash bounty to enlist as a substitute for another who had been called to serve, then desert and enlist again as a substitute, for another bounty. In his War Memories of an Army Chaplain (1910), H. C. Trum-bull recalled the custom:
The dimension of this evil grew at a fearful rate.... I speak of what came under my own observation, when I say that substitutes enlisted and deserted three, five, and seven times over; that in single regiments one-fourth and again one-half, and yet again a larger proportion, of all the men assigned under the new call of the President for five hundred thousand more volunteers, deserted within a few weeks of being started to the front.
bowlegs. A cavalryman. Elbridge Colby writes in Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech (1943): "This is a somewhat derisive term for a cavalryman, and like all true slang is descriptive and figurative in origin. Because constant riding of horses is thought to bow his legs, the cavalryman has for years been called bowlegs."
boys in blue. Union soldiers.
boys in gray. Confederate soldiers.
boys of the sod. An affectionate name for the Irish—and the all-Irish brigades—on either side. A song of an Irish unit began with the lines:
Ye boys of the sod, to Columbia true.
Come up, lads and fight for the Red, White and Blue.
Brains Regiment. The 33rd Illinois, because of the many college students and teachers in its ranks. It was one of many units nicknamed because of a special characteristic.
brass. Courage; nerve; impudence. All are good military characteristics. In his Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1882), Walter W. Skeat suggests that this meaning of "brass" stems from the Icelandic verb brasa ("to be hardened by fire").
bridgehead. (1) A military salient in hostile country (c. 1812). (2) A defensive position dominating or covering the extremity of a bridge nearest the enemy.
briney. The sea.
Bucktails. The 13th Pennsylvania Reserves; so-called because its members ornamented their hats with deer fur.
bum. To carouse.
bummer. (1) A deserter. See also HOSPITAL BUMMER. (2) An individual more interested in the spoils of war than in good conduct; a predatory soldier. (3) A generic name for the destructive horde of deserters, stragglers, runaway slaves, and marauders who helped make life miserable in the war-torn South. Bummers robbed, pillaged, and burned along with General Sherman and his army in Georgia. These men were known far and wide as SHERMAN'S BUMMERS. The term was not shortened to "bum" until after the war (c. 1870). It is almost certainly a modification of the German Bummler ("loafer"). (The contemporary "bummer"—as in "What a bummer"—stems from the "bum trip" of drug usage, specifically a bad reaction to a hallucinogenic drug such as LSD.)
bump. To kill; to die; to shell or bombard a certain position. The term dates from c. 1849 and lives on in the twentieth-century "bump off" ("to murder").
Butternuts. Confederate troops; from the fact that some had uniforms dyed with a home-brewed butternut dye.
by hook or by crook. By whatever means possible.
by the numbers. How the Union Army taught its recruits to load and fire. See NINE TIMES, THE. See also under World War II.
cannon fever. War weariness; a strong desire to get away from the front lines.
cap. (1) A captain. (2) To place a percussion cap in a musket so that it can be fired without delay.
Cape Cod turkey. Salted cod.
case / casket. A burial box. In 1863 Nathaniel Hawthorne became so upset with the sudden spread of the word "casket," which had hithertofore signified a jewel box, that he deemed it "a vile modern phrase which compels a person... to shrink... from the idea of being buried at all." In The American Language (1937), H. L. Mencken reports that the term "case" shows up in a report on the May 1864 burial of General J. E. B. Stuart.
chap. Pal; from the archaic "chapman" ("merchant" or "trader").
Chimneyville. Jackson, Mississippi, after it had been burned to the extent that all that was left of many buildings were their brick chimneys; a Union army term.
chips. A ship's carpenter.
chow. Food; a meal. The term first appeared in print in 1856, according to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. In The American Language (1937), H. L. Mencken concluded that it had been introduced into the United States with the first arrival of Chinese in California in 1848, and he believed it to be an Americanized corruption of the Chinese chia ("food"). Evidence suggests that the word was used by civilians on the Pacific Coast for many decades, but had pretty well died out in civilian life in the country as a whole until it made a comeback after World War II as G.I.'s returned home. The word "chow" is still very common in the armed forces. A "chow hound" is first in line at mess; mealtime is "chowtime"; and one who eats "chows down."
coffee boiler. A malingerer; a shirker. The type is described in Morris Schaff's The Battle of the Wilderness (1910):
A real adept skulker or coffee boiler is a most interesting specimen, and how well I remember the coolness with which he and his companion "for they go in pairs" would rise from their little fires upon being discovered, and ask innocently, "Lieutenant, can you tell us where the Umpteenth Regiment is?" And the answer, I am sorry to say, was too often: "Yes, right up there at the front, you damned rascal, as you well know!" Of course, they would make a show of moving, but were back at their little fires as soon as you were out of sight.
commish. A commission of any sort.
Company O. A special detachment of the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment, composed of officers who had been broken in rank for cowardice and were being given the chance to redeem themselves as private soldiers. "Company Q turned out to be a good fighting unit, and most of the men in it ultimately regained their commissions," reports Bruce Catton in A Stillness at Appomattox (1954).
Confederate disease. Diarrhea.
confisticate. To confiscate; to SNATCH BALD-HEADED.
Copperhead. (1) A northerner with sympathy for the South; an antiwar northerner. Copperheads got their name from the identifying lapel emblems they wore, which were copper heads cut from pennies and mounted on pins or clasps. (2) By extension, any treacherous person.
Corn Exchange Regiment. The 118th Pennsylvania Regiment; so-called because it had been raised and equipped by the members of the Philadelphia Corn Exchange.
cotton-clads. Steamers protected by cotton bales, which temporarily broke the Union blockade at Galveston on January 1, 1863. The term was a play on IRONCLAD.
Crabtown. Annapolis, Maryland; so-called by the naval cadets. The Naval Academy was opened at Annapolis in October 1845, and the term was born during its opening or immediately following.
crack-up / crack up. (1) An accident. (2) To fail in an examination; to wreck; to cry out; to become insane. The term is believed to have originated on the western frontier.
croaker. A pessimist. In A Stillness at Appomattox (1954), Bruce Catton described croakers as "congenital pessimists ... men who fought well but who always darkly prophesied ultimate Rebel victory." See also GROWLER.
crooked shoes. Footwear cut for right and left feet. Such shoes were provided to Union soldiers, many of whom, prior to enlisting, had only worn two shoes cut identically.
Excerpted from War Slang by Paul Dickson, Ben Lando. Copyright © 2011 Paul Dickson. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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