By Eoin Mulligan
British, Russian, French, Indian, New Zealand, and Australian soldiers in Paris, Bastille Day 1916.
Soldiers have a language all their own.
Image courtesy Wikimedia.
A lot of AH inevitably involves armies moving about hither and yon, and sometimes authors include conversations between members of the rank and file.
In my experience, the rank and file develop slang and jargon that turns it into another language. This morphs over the years, often in response to internal events. For verisimilitude in writing, the use of slang can go a long way.
Which is all the excuse I need to introduce Eoin Mulligan to give his evaluation of the current situation among the Pongoes (British Army. So called because wherever they go, that’s where the pong goes.)
You can tell a lot about someone from what they choose to tell you. The average Squaddie is only too happy to let their feelings be known on a wide range of topics such as the current temperature, the competence and moral, physical, and mental worthiness of their esteemed colleagues, the value of the work they are doing and, of course, disbelief that they are being paid to do what they love. The Poor Bloody Infantry and Tommies of yesteryear are still living the dream, even if they go by the name Squaddies now. What does change, however, is the words they use.
As a rough rule of thumb, Army slang can be divided into three sometimes overlapping categories. The first of these is the second most common, nicknames for respected and valued colleagues, usually referring to their well-established and commonly known preference for specific acts of sexual deviancy. The second is a baffling mix of acronyms, mottos, descriptions, official military jargon, and fragments stolen from various languages, but particularly German and Arabic, that has bled over from training, operations, and partner organisations amounting to its own language.
Finally, there is the majority of ingroup communication: swearing and sarcasm. Before we begin in earnest, I have to say that every unit is different and time changes all things. Whatever I say here should be considered as what is known as an interest piece; that is to say, it’s probably nonsense but it beats doing real work.
I’ve started with the nicknames because frankly, even if mostly said with love, mostly is not entirely and a lot of these are not fit for polite society. In fact, I’ve chosen to exclude some from this article because I deemed them too derogatory or offensive. You can use your imagination. But enough waffling; let’s get to it.
Starting at the top – or the bottom – you have officers being referred to as Ruperts, posh twits with no business being in charge of anything, so on paper they are in charge of everything. Frankly, it’s a stereotype that’s somewhat outdated as increasing numbers of officers come from the ranks as LEs or Late Entry Officers, former Warrant Officers known as Badges who crossed over to the ‘Dark Side’.
Slinging the bat. The young officer is taking notes.
However, whatever socioeconomic background they come from, all Officers remain incredibly dangerous when armed with a map, particularly Troopies, which is Sapper talk for Troop Officers who tend to be young, keen, and either hopelessly out of their depth or smart enough not to work too hard in case people start expecting things of them, and let the Troop Staffy, Colour, or Flag do most of the actual running of the Troop. These are all Corps specific variations of the same rank of Staff Sergeant who, after trying and failing to find the Troop Sergeant (Stripey), will instead delegate the work to Corporals and Lance Corporals (known as Full Screws and Lance Jacks respectively).
But however much we deride the Chain of Command, at least at the end of the day, they are all ARABs like ourselves (ARrogant Army Bastards). It could be far worse, being either the operators of Crab Air or the Senile Service. The former is hated because it is rich, generally well-furnished, and contains the universally loathed RAF Regiment; the latter is hated because it’s the Navy, although the Leatherneck component gets some measure of respect when they stop messing around with boats and helicopters and instead help out on land. Exceptions are made for when they allow the Army to share the experience of messing around with boats and helicopters, but everything is Ali when you do it. There is a saying that the Army TABs (Tactical Advance to Battle), the Marines Yomp, and the RAF catch a bus.
But, however much we deride them, at least they are not the other Corps in the Army. The Really Large Corps of the Royal Logistical Corps that every year finds more jobs to take over and do badly far beyond the Loggies who occasionally manage to drive places, the Redcaps and Monkeys of the Royal Military Police who are detested by all for their habit of arresting upstanding Squaddies when they break the law. Then you have the Dog Shaggers (Military Working Dogs), the Donkey Wallopers (Cavalry) the Crayon Munchers (Infantry), Armoured Farmers (Yeomanry), Scalybacks and Bleeps (Royal Signals and Royal Engineer Signals), the Paras who maintain that every other Regiment and Corps are Crap Hats out of jealousy for most of them having won at least one battle since 1944. Saving the best for last is the Corps of Royal Engineers, or Wedgeheads, named after our alleged practice of shoring up batteries with dead bodies, specifically using heads as a wedge. We’re just Ubique like that, the motto of the Royal Engineers meaning: “Everywhere,” which we’ve naturally dumbed down into a bit of wordplay a five year old would be proud of and which the Crayon Munchers are still three years off figuring out.
Below all these, you have kiddy fiddlers (Cadets) and STAB (Stupid TA Bastards) like myself who play soldiers on weekends before getting paid real money by people who treat us like adults on Civvy Street. Thus we occupy a space of being held in both complete contempt and slight envy by Regulars.
But, however much we deride them, at least they are all serving members of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. Unlike Civvies.
Okay, now we’ve established what we think of the component parts of the Armed Forces as collectives, let’s get into the specifics of what we think of each other as individuals and how we talk to each other. Some terms are fairly functional and straight forward. Nav is Navigation, Check On means stop what you are doing, Seen is acknowledging that you have seen what you are supposed to have see – whether you have or not. Roger means yes. Then you have placenames like Weybiza (Weymouth, which has a beach) and Gib (Gibraltar Barracks, which has a lake and is where most Royal Engineers do their phase two training), both of which have spawned many Dits.
Dits are stories. Shit Dits are boring stories, spinning Dits at the NAAFI (basically a bar, but not all of them sell alcohol anymore, so are basically more expensive scoffhouses which in turn serve the army alternative to food) is a way of passing the time; listening to Shit Dits is a way of greasing someone up if you need to be on their good side.
Dits are usually about allegedly Ali events, that is to say cool or impressive or recruitment video worthy events even though, at the lower end, it could simply mean wearing hero sleeves (that is to say, rolled-up sleeves) and tinted ballistic glasses which look cooler. Ali kit is considered cool looking, but occasionally branches into functional and useful, unlike the much-derided Webtec kit which spawned the phrase Websters, which means completely worthless. There is also, of course, room for talking about the individuals who match that description, such as Mongs and Sprogs, with the two going together. Sprogs being, of course, Crows noted for their Black Crow Bags at basic training which they have only recently left, if at all.
Finally, you have the default conversational tool of the squaddie, sarcasm and swearing with some variation to allow for lecherous comments, by males and females alike, and an endless procession of observation-based humour on the idiosyncrasies of Army life and the endless farting that comes from eating Army food. I don’t need to elaborate on this, do I?
One can wonder, perhaps, at a body that allegedly holds one of its core values to be total professionalism and had a strong reputation as a fighting force across the globe and has, as the years have gone by, devoted increasing amounts of time to building a culture of respect and mutual support, why its members of any ranks and age often could be mistaken for a bunch of middle-schoolers in terms of their chosen vocabulary, dropping to primary schoolers in their sense of humour.
The best answer I can give is the sense of cohesion. Soldiers often have to put up with living and working conditions that literal prisoners would be able to resort to legal action over. They are forced to work within a hierarchical system with very little time for fairness. Swearing has been proven to help one deal with pain and stress; in-jokes build a sense of togetherness; while insulting or degrading the high and mighty or colleagues with seemingly easier duties acts as a pressure relief valve for genuine grievances. Field conditions often reduce one to a fairly primitive state of existence, consequently coarsening one’s vocabulary. That, combined with a sense of humour, will always burn well.
It’s often said that soldiers complain about literally everything, and that one of the signs that something has gone seriously and terribly wrong and men and women are approaching their limits is that they stop complaining. Presumably the same holds true when they stop calling each other stupid names or sounding like space aliens or accidentally let slip that they like each others.
Soldier complaining - morale must be good.
"What's the matter with you?"
"Pain in my abdomen."
"Abdomen! Abdomen, indeed! You don't 'ave no abdomen. You 'ave a stomick. It's only officers what 'ave an abdomen."
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