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Where Does 'Roger' Come From?

The language of the Army is steeped in history, peppered with profanity and rife with Soldiers’ dark wit. From "ate-up" to "woobie," here’s a condensed glossary of familiar phrases and their origins.

Hey Soldier,

Let’s do a little reading comprehension exercise. Don’t worry. It’s no ASVAB. But there will be a quiz at the end. 

I was a lowly sham-shield fobbit getting indoctrinated into the E-4 Mafia when my NCO ordered me to get him a box of grid squares. I said I didn’t know where to find them. He told me to beat my face 20 times and figure it out. So I said, “Roger, WILCO.” At which point, some butter bar told me to stand fast. “Don’t you know that’s redundant?” he asked. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said, “Acknowledged.” Then I saluted, did an about-face and went on my way. First, I stopped at the PX to see if they sold grid squares in bulk, but I couldn’t find any, so I bought some pogey bait instead. Next, I went by the chow hall, where I passed a gaggle of grunts conducting a police call outside the latrine. They were all ate-up, so I decided to stop and help. I never did find those grid squares, and the rest of the day turned into a total soup sandwich. 

The quiz has only one question: Do you have any idea what the heck that paragraph says?     

A. Negative
B. Roger

If you answered A, don’t worry. You may be a newbie, but GX is here to help. 

If you answered B, chances are you’ve been a Soldier for a while. And sure, you may know what those expressions mean, but do you know why they came to be?

Every job comes with its own unique jargon, and soldiering is no exception. Whether you’re looking for definitions or depth, this handy glossary—compiled by an expert panel* of grunts, POGs and everybody in between—can help you become fluent in the vernacular of valor.

*Esteemed Panel Members:

  • CPT William Carraway, Georgia Army National Guard
  • MAJ Darrin Haas, Tennessee Army National Guard
  • COL (Ret.) Len Kondratiuk, director of historical services, Massachusetts National Guard
  • SGT Wesley Parrell, Arizona Army National Guard
  • MSG Michel Sauret, U.S. Army

Ate-up
/āt-UHp/
adjective 
Can describe a person who is useless or clueless or a situation that’s pointless or out of control. 

BCGs 
acronym, noun 
Birth control glasses. With their thick frames and huge lenses, the standard-issue military specs are so unflattering they’re almost guaranteed to repel members of the opposite sex.

Beat your face
/bēt yôr fās/
verb 
Do push-ups. 

BOB 
acronym, noun 
Ever heard someone say, “Hey, Bob’s out!” and wondered who they were talking about and why they were so happy to see him? Well, they’re referring to that big orange ball in the sky, the sun. 

Bolo
bo•lo /bōlō/
verb
To fail or foul something up, especially as it relates to rifle range qualification. The most likely explanation for this usage stems from Filipino guerrillas who fought on the side of U.S. forces during WWII. Those fighters who failed to show proficiency in marksmanship were issued machete-like knives called bolos instead of firearms so they wouldn’t waste scant ammunition. 

Brain bucket 
brain buck•et /brān bUHkUHt/
noun 
Helmet. 

Butter bar 
but•ter bar /bUHdUHr bär/
noun 
A second lieutenant, so called because the rank insignia resembles a stick of butter. 

Chow 
/CHau/
noun
Food. 

Click
/klik/
noun
One kilometer. The word is either an oddly condensed form of “kilometer,” or a play on the sound of a military odometer. Variant: Klick 

Dirt dart
/dUHrt därt/
noun 
What non-Airborne personnel call Airborne personnel. One of many examples of military lingo’s underlying dark humor. 

Doughboy 
dough•boy /dōboi/
noun
An infantryman. Although most closely associated with WWI-era foot Soldiers, the term actually dates to before the Civil War. Attempts by historians to nail down a definitive origin of the word have been unsuccessful, but one explanation is that troops in the 1850s had a doughy concoction for their rations. 

Duly noted 
du•ly not•ed /d(y)OOlē nōdUHd/
declaration 
As one member of our panel put it: Within the military context, it’s a nice way of saying, “Thanks for your advice, but there’s no way I’m going to take it.” 

E-4 Mafia 
e-four ma•fi•a /ē fôr mäfēUH/
proper noun 
The unofficial alliance of E-4s who look out for and help one another. The idea suggests self-policing—if a Soldier’s fellow specialists correct him or her before an NCO finds out about a deficiency, everybody’s better off. 

Fobbit 
fob•bit /fäbit/
noun
A person who never leaves the FOB (forward operating base). The term is a relatively recent one, combining “FOB” with “hobbit,” which first appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel The Hobbit, published in 1937. 

Front-leaning rest
front-lean•ing rest /frUHnt lēniNG rest/
noun 
Push-up position. One of many military terms whose cleverness makes you wonder how much free time the person who coined it had.  

Gig line 
gig•line /gig līn/
noun 
The vertical line formed by the seam of a Soldier’s blouse, belt buckle and fly. Some have traced the origin to the demerit, or “gig,” received in the military if one’s uniform line isn’t straight. 

Got your 6 
/gät yôr siks/
declaration 
“I’ve got your back.” This spatial reference—12 o’clock is in front of you, and 6 o’clock is behind you—spread to the Army from Air Force pilots. Considering clock faces have been almost universally replaced by digital displays, it will be interesting to see how much longer the term exists. 

Grid squares 
/grid skwers/
plural noun 
Items young privates are often asked to go get, not knowing they’ve been sent on a fool’s errand. Grid squares exist—they’re sections used for plotting points on a military map—but they don’t come in a box. 

Grunt 
/grUHnt/
noun 
An infantryman. The word existed in wider culture before it came to apply to Soldiers, and refers to the unglamorous work they do. 

Head shed 
/hed SHed/
noun 
Headquarters. 

Hooah
hoo•ah /hOOUH/
interjection, adjective, noun

  1. A positive affirmation, shouted by a group, usually following something a higher-ranking person just said and/or ordered. There are almost as many explanations for the origin of this “word” as there are ways to spell it. One is that it’s a derivation of the Marines’ guttural “ooh-rah!”
  2. Embodying the Guard’s gung-ho ideals.
  3. Excitement; intensity; high speed. 

Household 6 
house•hold six /hous(h)ōld siks/
noun 
A spouse who takes care of the home while a Soldier is away. Derives from radio call signs,  in which “6” denotes a unit commander. 

Jeep
/jēp/
noun
The compact, sturdy, versatile vehicle first used by the Army in WWII. One explanation for the name is that an early version of the vehicle, manufactured by Willys-Overland Motors, was described as a “general purpose” car. That got shortened to “GP,” which later morphed into “jeep.” A second—and more fun—theory points to E. C. Segar’s Popeye comic strip. In March 1936, it featured a character named Eugene the Jeep, a doglike creature that could “go anywhere and do anything.” Many think Soldiers applied the creature’s name to the vehicle because of its ability to traverse virtually any terrain. 

Leg 
/leg/
noun 
What Airborne personnel call everybody who isn’t Airborne. 

POG 
acronym 
Person other than grunt. See also: Grunt 

Pogey bait
po•gey bait /pōgē bāt/
noun 
Snacks or candy. There are numerous arguments about the origin of this term. Some are innocent. Some are not. But all of them involve using sweets to entice someone to do something they might not otherwise do. It’s who that someone is that’s in question. One explanation is that “pogey” is slang for a military clerk, and that if Soldiers needed something from the clerk, they plied him or her with candy.  

Police call
po•lice call /pUHlēs kôl/
verb, noun

  1. To clean something.
  2. The act of cleaning something. The term plays off the idea of “policing” or securing an area, i.e., picking up trash or storing away items. 

Pop smoke 
/päp smōk/
verb 
To leave in a hurry. Derives from the military’s use of smoke grenades to cover up movement from a location. 

Pucker factor 
puck•er fac•tor /pUHkUHr faktUHr/
medical noun 
The extent to which one’s butt cheeks clench up during a fierce battle. Know what you call someone who has been in battle and says he had zero pucker factor? A liar.

Ricky-tick 
rick•y-tick /rikē tik/
adverb
Quickly. Usually preceded by the word “most,” e.g., “We’ve got to knock this job out most ricky-tick.” It’s generally accepted that the phrase was first adopted by the Marines, but the verdict is split on its roots. Some say it comes from the Japanese term riki-tik; others say it’s a reference to the Rudyard Kipling story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” about a quick and courageous mongoose. 

Roger 
rog•er /räjUHr/
declaration
Perhaps the most versatile word in the U.S. military. Strictly speaking, it means “transmission received.” But it has evolved to include other meanings, including yes, OK, right on, I’ll get on it, etc. Its origins can be traced to Morse code. In the 1940s, when a Soldier wanted to confirm that a Morse code message had been successfully transmitted, he sent back the letter R, short for “received.” At the time, R was represented in the phonetic alphabet by the word Roger, so “Roger” came to mean, “I received your message.” Romeo has since replaced Roger in the phonetic alphabet, but not in military lingo. 

See the wizard 
see the wiz•ard /sē THUH wizUHrd/
verb 
Something you really, really don’t want to do. It’s when a Soldier is exhausted to the point of hallucinating. Often referred to in water training courses, where the trainee holds their breath for so long that they get tunnel vision and see something resembling a wizard before passing out. As an aside, it’s a testament to the ferocity and universality of training that Soldiers have “seen the wizard” so often and so vividly that they named him. 

Sham shield 
/SHam SHēld/
noun 
Uncomplimentary term for a specialist who uses his or her inexperience to get out of doing work. Derives from the verb “sham,” meaning to trick or deceive. Also: Full-bird private 

Soup sandwich 
soup sand•wich /sOOp san(d)wiCH/
noun 
A person who is a walking disaster. Can also be used to describe a messed-up situation. 

Time hack 
/tīm hak/
verb 
To take note of the current time. 

Voluntold 
vol•un•told /välUHntōld/ 
past participle of voluntell 
The perfect example of a made-up word that makes sense as soon as you hear it. Let’s leave it to Arizona National Guard Sergeant Wesley Parrell to define this one, not least of all because he knows how to utilize quotation marks for maximum effect: Being “asked” to do something. Also: Mandatory fun 

WILCO 
wil•co /wilkō/
interjection
Will comply, mashed together to form one word. It’s capitalized because … well, any chance to use big letters, right? 

Woobie 
woo•bie /wOObē/
noun
The iconic and venerable poncho liner. Without it, Soldiers would be cold. Some think “would be” squeezed together and said really fast is the source of this term of endearment. Others say the name is borrowed from the 1983 Michael Keaton movie Mr. Mom, in which “woobie” is the word used for a child’s security blanket.

 


 

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Most languages beg, borrow and steal from others. These U.S. military words have their roots in non-native tongues: 

Colonel. This rank’s spelling is a mystery wrapped in a chevron. Centuries ago, it came to English from French, which had borrowed it from Italian. The Italian word was colonello, which the French changed to coronel. The English later replaced the “r” with an “l,” but kept the French pronunciation (kor-o-nel). Somewhere along the way, the middle syllable went AWOL, hence today's ker-nel pronunciation.

Sapper. The elite combat engineers derive their name from the French word sapeur, referring to a Soldier who dug saps, or tunnels. 

Gung-ho. Defined in English as “enthusiastic” or “eager,” it comes from a phonetic reproduction of the Chinese gonghe, meaning “work together.” The phrase was adopted by the Marine Corps as a slogan during WWII.

 


 

FIGHTING WORDS

Over the years, Soldiers’ expressions for entering combat have changed just as drastically as the way wars are fought. Here are a few terms used to describe being in the fight: 

Being downrange. Literally meaning “away from a launch site,” this is the modern word for the place where combat happens.

Going over the wall. Soldiers who went to battle during WWI were said to do this. It referred to infantrymen rising from their trenches to attack the enemy, an action that frequently met with heavy casualties. 

Seeing the elephant. There are varying explanations for the origin of this Civil War–era phrase. But one thing is clear: It carried with it an air of disappointment. Imagine a person excited by the prospect of seeing an elephant at the circus, but for whom the experience turned out to fall flat. For Soldiers, the idea of fighting for their country was glorious. The reality of it—bullets, bayonets, disease, exhaustion, hunger, cold, fear, death—was not.