combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

A Verbal Contraption

Beyond bringing about geographic and cultural changes that are literally earth-shaking, war has also generated advances in technology such as radar and jet travel, and prompted scientific discoveries, such as penicillin and new treatments for malaria. On a societal level, it has had a profound effect on language and vocabulary as warriors move from place to place according to their country's demands, interacting with other cultures. Vocabulary and usage are borrowed or altered as each group learns new and distinctive expressions from another. In explaining, describing, or lauding events, colorful jargon emanating from the barracks is on the front line of such change, for it tends to be concise and especially apt. In addition to soldiers, politician or statesmen have had a hand in producing a spin as far back as antiquity, adding richness to our language.

Of course, the extremity of war always has justification. It can range from family to country and honor. Liberty is often a factor, the word relating to the German liebe, or love, derived from the Latin Libido. The love for liberty can also be quite genuine, a word that means placing on the knees, a way the ancient Romans acknowledged a new offspring in front of the family. Eventually that practice was taken over in Old English with the word stol, meaning throne, a worthy validation for going to war.

Once established, it would behoove the leaders to motivate the warriors to prepare for battle. The Anglo-Saxon scream or hcream was a tribal outcry at a perceived wrongdoing. In the process, Celtics might further seek a slogan, a word combining slaugh and gheun meaning battle cry. Ancient Romans would seek out a victima or animal that would be sacrificed. In France, the training would encompass being a marcher that could traple or even hammer his opponent. Wherever the encampment, such bold words served to fortify resolve among the untrained conscripts.

If it didn't, there were other means, such as providing marijuana for the warriors to smoke before going into battle. The word assassin comes from the Arabic word hashshshin meaning someone addicted to marijuana. There were even secret societies in which assassination enabled those in the Middle East to assert power. Infiltration into the enemie's ranks was one of the practices. In more modern times, British sailors would be fortified with grog, a mixture of rum and water, a word that was a corruption of Old Grog, a reference to the British Admiral Vernon who wore a coat made of grogram, meaning coarsely textured. All this to preclude a man from being called a coward, from the old French coe meaning tail, in reference to an animal turning tail and running away.

Military dress in ancient times had its own linguistic impact. The word escape is Latin for out of cape, a practice whereby the soldiers would avoid capture by discarding their identifying garments and running away. In a different climate, Scandinavian warriors would ceremonially wear bear shirts called berserkr which they hoped would make them invincible. It also caused them to run berserk as they fought with the enemy. In the 1700s, when French troops were entering Croatia during the Napoleonic wars, they found the citizenry to be so welcoming after being under the control of the German Hapsburgs that they were showered with flowers and bright squares of red cloth placed in the collars of their uniforms. This variation of Croat can be found in French, German and Spanish in the words cravat, krawatte, and corbata, each meaning a man's necktie.

But ultimately an army travels on its stomach, and if the leaders want to succeed, they will make sure its soldiers are well fed. Chocolate was introduced to the Spaniards who invaded South America, a word which comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs tchocoatl. A chocolate based drink started with cacahuaquchtl powder that was mixed with chili, musk, and honey. When soldiers prepared for battle, ground corn was added to its nourishment. In other American expeditions, soldiers confused some newly discovered food with their more familiar sweet potato, bappa, which changed to bappata and evolved into the English word potato. A continent away, coffee beans were discovered in the town of Kaffa, Ethiopia, by advancing Arabs who had cut off the access to the then Abyssinia in the 8th Century. The kaffa beans were later introduced to Europe by 17th Century Ottoman Turks who, when fighting the Austrians, faced reversals and retreated, leaving sacks of coffee beans. These were quickly brewed in public houses, called a café, and later, this drink was combined with a pastry shaped as a crescent, as represented in the Turkish flag, and dubbed the croissant by the French.

Food was not the only reward of warfare. Ancient Rome realized its soldiers had to be paid for their service and did so with a handful of salt, a rare and much desired commodity. This was eventually replaced with salt money or salary that would enable the soldiers to buy their own. The medieval French term soldat is related to that practice. If a Roman soldier was of higher rank, he might demand more and be rewarded with some slaves known as addicts. Today, anyone who is enslaved, as with drugs, is known as an addict.

But wars didn't last forever. When finally won, there was much to do in restoring the peace. First came the soldiers, who had to be literally appeased or paid off, a term derived from the Latin pax, which refers to a peace imposed by predominance. The German word freiheit for freedom is closely derived from friede (originally Frisian frith), meaning peace or well-being. When sued for such a peace, the wronged would be given a peace offering, such as a quantity of meat or hides called bot or botshaft, a current German word for message, and later boot or boat, which could refer to the deliverer. Another Germanic word, riht refers to the justice or balance that tribal leaders determined when sizing the bot. Riht was the perfect amount of bot that would once more establish order and a long-lasting peace, and might refer to our own use of right, as in the Bill of Rights. Ancient Greeks took a more retributive approach. The name Nemesis refers to the deity who restored balance, but it soon took on the more menacing meaning of wrath or righteousness, and the hubris of not first consulting the gods.

Today we can still see many other words generated during wartime. The German kampf, which means struggle, comes from the Latin word campus, a style of fortification. Those sending a child to camp might not realize the militaristic implications. The same is true of champion, another English word from the same root. In a lighter vein, during the Crusades, Westerners learned to play various games with al Zahr, meaning the dice, this becoming the English word hazard. It was then associated with corruption and uncertainty, but no one today would connect that with the elegant casinos where gambling is considered recreation. The Old Dutch word bolwerk refers to a fortification or bulwark. It evolved into the French boulevard. Travel or travailler evolved from the Latin word tripullare, a three-sectioned whip to encourage laborers in the defeated provinces to work harder, thus to torture. The Latin laborar evolved into the English word labor. In ancient times, travel almost always involved working.

Like metaphor and slang, colorful military language is incorporated into common use by virtue of its distinctiveness of meaning. Terms like canteen, sad sack, and chopper, along with an array of acronyms, like AWOL, GI, and SNAFU, not to mention jihad and humvee, are quickly incorporated into everyday speech. It tells us that American English is a growing and changing language that reflects a vital and energetic people. Like our accents, the words we choose become our ambassadors to the world.

"A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt."
by Mark Twain

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones