Military slang

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On a large discussion list, I said something that involved a lot of close, careful reasoning and marshalling of evidence to come to a precise conclusion, and another member of the list approved what I wrote with a hearty "Shack!"

I was dumbfounded.

I tried to find this usage in all sorts of dictionaries, including collections of slang expressions, but I just couldn't figure it out.

Finally, I was compelled to ask my interlocutor what he meant, and he apologized, saying that it is a term used in naval aviation when a bomb hits right on target.

I was happy enough simply to know what he meant, so I didn't pursue the matter by inquiring about the etymology, though it would be interesting to find out what it is.

All professions and walks of life have their own jargon, but usually it stays within that particular group.  Occasionally (or perhaps I should rephrase that as "often"), however, argot leaks out into the wider world and becomes a part of everyday speech for the common man, woman, and child.  Indeed, slang*, jargon, and argot are fecund sources of enrichment for our regular vocabulary, though some of their instances never get over being labeled as "informal", "offensive", "vulgar", "derogatory", and so forth.

The military is huge, with hundreds of thousands of members, so naturally many of its in-house expressions are adopted by the public at large.  Two that leap to mind are "AWOL" and "snafu".  I knew how to use these words from the time I was in high school, and even understood what the letters of the former stood for, but had no idea at all about the derivation of the second one, though I realized quite clearly that it meant everything was all messed up and muddled.  If I had known the true etymology of the word, I wouldn't have used it, because I have an extreme aversion for the "f" word (just as some people have a "moist" aversion).  On the other hand, there's a euphemized explanation with "fouled" for the "f" word, so I don't feel quite so bad about all the times I did say it.

=============

*Just as I was about to conclude this post and put it up on the web, something uncanny happened to me, as is often the case.  Wanting to check a word in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, I reached out to pick up this big (2,112 pages, 8.5 x 2.6 x 11 inches, 7.8 pounds shipping weight) vade mecum (though I can't really go around with it in my pocket), which is always on the right side of my desk.  Lo and behold, by itself, the AHD opened to p. xv, the concluding page of John R. Rickford's introductory essay on "Variation and Change in Our Living Language", which ends with a disquisition on (what else?) "Slang" that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject.  This demonstrates once again my deep affinity with the AHD (see under "References" below).

Readings



34 Comments

  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 8:51 am

    You can find almost anything on Wikipedia. Look what I just came up with:

    shack
    (U.S. Air Force) A direct hit against a ground target, often used as praise.

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Glossary_of_military_slang

  2. Keith said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 9:21 am

    One missing from that Wikipedia list, and a favourite from my childhood is WOFT: a check of a vehicle's Water, Oil, Fuel and Tyres.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 10:22 am

    From Gene Hill:

    I suppose my favorite Navy expression as a response to some shipmate who failed at his responsibility was: "Mr. numbnuts, you could fuck up a soup sandwich".

    Gene followed that up with this:

    Sea stories are tales of adventures or harrowing experiences at sea, mostly told to other sailors because only they could empathize and share the context of the story. But they always start out with the formality, "Now you ain't gonna believe this shit!"

  4. phil wisecup said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    yes, or….."this is no s..t" always a clue that a sea story is about to be told. phil

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    SNAFU has a well known military companion: FUBAR (f….ed up beyond all recognition).

  6. Dan Milton said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 11:16 am

    And a superlative, pretty much forgotten since WWII: JANFU (joint army-navy …).

  7. Lester said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    That particular bit of jargon hasn't found its way into my go-to source for Navy terminology, jargon and slang (so big that it's broken into two parts):
    http://www.hazegray.org/faq/slang1.htm
    http://www.hazegray.org/faq/slang2.htm

  8. Paul said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:25 pm

    Googling "shack bomb" gave this interesting article as a top result: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004741.html

    (I know, that search phrase presupposes that you know what the term means. It's more of a comment on how many topics LL has covered authoritatively!)

  9. John Shutt said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    @Victor Mair: Just to note, that's Wiktionary, not Wikipedia. (Of the wikimedia sisterhood, Wikipedia is the biggest by volume, and worthy and all, but also tends to get the credit due to its sisters.)

  10. Theophylact said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

    Also SAPFU ("surpasses all previous f…ups") and TASFURIA ("things are so f…ed up, really, it's amazing").

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

    So any line on the origin of "Shack"?

    Thanks to Dan Milton for mentioning my old favorite of the FU acronyms and Theophylact for adding two new favorites.

  12. RW said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    Seems pretty weird for someone to use jargon like that. If it is a term used in naval aviation, then it might make sense to use it in a discussion about naval aviation. Otherwise, just comes across as very odd.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 1:29 pm

    @John Shutt:

    Thanks for setting me straight on that. I'm a huge fan and supporter of both Wikipedia and Witkonary, so I wouldn't for a moment want to slight the latter.

    @Jerry Friedman:

    The moment I hear anything about the origin of "shack" meaning "right on target", this list will be the first to know.

    @RW:

    A significant number of members of that list have had experience in the Navy, and some are actually naval aviators. On the other hand, a career officer in the Navy who is on the list had this to say: "as a surface ship person, i had never heard the term shack in 36 years". So the use of "shack" in that sense must be pretty much restricted to aviators (also in the Air Force).

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 1:48 pm

    @Paul

    Wow!

    Thanks for that great discovery! Makes me all the more honored to be associated with LL. And the etymology makes perfect sense!

  15. Jim said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

    @Victor

    The phrase "soup sandwich" strikes me as particularly funny, especially because I've only seen it used before in a more literal sense – this Basic Instructions strip, describing chowder in a bread bowl. But I'm not at all surprised to hear about its military meaning; Eskimos may not really have a hundred words for snow, but I'm sure the armed forces have that many terms and more for failure.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 2:18 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    In Russian slang there is the acronym/term бомж (без определенного места жительства), lit. "without a definite place of residence" i.e. "homeless." pl. бомжи, fem. бомжиха – with a number of variants. The term was originally police shorthand for "homeless" but entered popular speech and is pejorative. Wikipedia notes it, but in its English and German versions (with the German obviously borrowed from English) they have the heading as "Tramp." Not quite correct. In any event, it is a state to which one should not aspire. The Soviets loved acronyms…all the secret police and intelligence agencies were best known by them (we, of course, have that too: FBI, CIA, etc.)

  17. John Roth said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 2:20 pm

    I thought the last word of FUBAR was recovery rather than recognition.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

    I have always known the last word as "recognition" rather than "recovery" — if it were the latter, would it not have to be FUBAHOR ("beyond all hope of") ?

  19. Stephen Hart said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 4:51 pm

    FUBAR
    And it's derivatives in programming: foo and bar, commonly used as stand-ins for named variables.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foobar

    Also, in the Navy Jargon pages, they missed shitcan v. to throw away or discard.

  20. Bill Boyd said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 5:02 pm

    A former colleage at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who'd done his 4 years military service used a term for senior enlisted personnel and officers who spent their combat time quite distanced from the toils of front-line duty as "REMFs" (rear-echilon mother-f___ers). Not sure what term he'd stick me with as I was a conscientious objector.

  21. John Roth said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

    @Stephen Hart

    That's a common misconception. The terms "foo" and "bar" as used in programming derive from the Smokey Stover comic strip. See

    https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc3092 for a discussion. It's possible that FUBAR derives from this.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 24, 2019 @ 6:44 pm

    Paul: Belated thanks for the etymology.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 1:15 am

    @John Roth: Given the April 1 date of that IETF spec, I wouldn't take it as gospel.

  24. Pickering said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 4:22 am

    Bill Boyd: other insults similar to REMF include pogue https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogue, in the rear with the gear, blanket counter, Remington (typewriter) Raider, among others.

  25. tk said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 6:15 am

    "All professions and walks of life have their own jargon, but usually it stays within that particular group."
    This is an aspect of what anthropologist Ralph Linton back in 1936 called "Differential Participation in Culture," [_The Study of Man_]: that the cultural whole is not only those "memes" which everyone in a society shares, but also includes "alternatives," and "specialties," features which are unique to particular segments of societies, in this case, Naval aviation.

  26. John Roth said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    @Chas Belov

    As a matter of fact, I read Smoky Stover in the Sunday Tribune as a child, and I well remember going through it with my sister to find all the nonsense words. If you think through the history, the undergrads at MIT and similar places in the late 50s and early 60s who set "hacker" culture were in the 8 to 10 year old age range in the late 40s and early 50s – the time when pre-teen boys like that kind of humor.

    There were also collections of that comic. I can't attest to antedating it into the 30s myself – I haven't done that kind of research. It is, however, described in the Wikipedia article on the Smoky Stover comic strip.

  27. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 9:05 am

    I have long believed that the Hebrew phrase mashtin baqqir, found in some war narratives in the Bible to designate 'male' and meaning something like 'wall-pisser', is an example of military slang. Of course the King James Version ruins its slanginess by rendering it as 'him that pisseth against the wall'.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 9:20 am

    @ Coby Lubliner

    "him that pisseth against the wall"

    I love that!! Gave me a huge laugh. Thank you!!!

  29. George said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 1:39 pm

    Prior discussion suggests that "shack" originated with WWII American bomber crews:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004741.html

  30. James said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

    Re: "him that pisseth …" this was cited by Mark Twain in his Letters from the Earth. I found his reference at I Kings 14:10 KJV. "I shall ban from the house of Jereboam he that pisseth against the wall." Twain took it as an unreasonable commandment and then mused "you can pisseth on anything but a wall. Evidentially you could even piss on your mother, but never on a wall."

  31. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2019 @ 3:56 pm

    Tell that to the men who "pissethed" on the walls at Versailles before modern plumbing was installed, Mark! One of the most memorable sights of my early 20s was seeing the eroded exterior palace walls at Versailles and being told it was the result of thousands of men "pissething" on those walls for decades.

    Another stunning scene that I experienced at around the same age (in 1965, to be exact) was seeing rows of men "pissething" on the walls right beside the main streets of Kathmandu.

  32. Lars said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 4:38 am

    Just for completeness, you don't have to use an April 1st joke RFC to find the Smokey Stover reference. Wikipedia (who else) has a nice article on it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokey_Stover

  33. Gene Hill said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 5:45 pm

    Yes "Shit Can" for disposal or "Deep 6" for remove from existence.
    I recall, seeing Men in suits in company with Well dressed ladies, in Down Town Manila, turning to a low wall to piss without breaking their conversations in 1960

  34. AG said,

    May 26, 2019 @ 7:36 pm

    There is a VERY diverting navy slang glossary floating around the internet… I read it straight through a few years ago, neglecting all else for several hours. I think this might be it: http://goatlocker.org/resources/nav/navyslang.pdf

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