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Don't Be MIA! Improve Your English With These Military Words


Now the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

On this show, we explore the origin and uses of common expressions in American English.

Today, we talk about some words that began life in the military.

In the United States, Veterans Day is a national holiday held on November 11. On that day in 1918, all sides in World War I stopped fighting. Americans originally called this holiday Armistice Day. The name changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

A Veteran’s Day kind of veteran is a current or former member of the armed services. However, “veteran” also describes civilians.

A veteran is someone who has a lot of experience in a particular activity, skill or job. The opposite of a veteran is a novice or a beginner.

But let’s get back to military veterans.

People in the military like to use acronyms. An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of each word in a phrase.

For example, the acronym NATO stands for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” But now people just call it “NATO.”

Some other military acronyms have crossed over into civilian language.

Radar, for example, is short for “RAdio Detecting and Ranging.” Radar is a device that sends out radio waves for finding the position and speed of a moving object such as a spy plane. This war term first came into use in 1941.

We use "radar" in a couple useful expressions.

To fall off the radar means to disappear.

For example, let’s say I am too busy to play the ukulele. When a friend asks if I’ve been playing, I can say, “Playing the ukulele has kind of fallen off my radar. I’m just too busy these days.”

The opposite of that is to be on someone's radar. When something is on your radar you are thinking about it or considering it.

For example, let’s say I have moved to a new city. I have a new job and a new apartment. Then, someone asks me if I have joined a ukulele group yet. I answer, “Not yet. But it is on my radar.”

In other words, I am actively looking for one.

But let’s leave the ukulele and go back to war. If you are pilot of a spy plane, you want to fly under the enemy’s radar. This way they will not detect you on their radar screens.

And that is how we use this expression in everyday conversation. When you fly under the radar you want to be invisible -- unseen, undetected. You disappear.

If you disappear from a battle in a war, you are MIA. This acronym stands for “missing in action.”

In civilian use, MIA often refers to a person dropping out of an activity. For example, if I miss a lot of ukulele practices my band mates might describe me as MIA.

AWOL is a very different kind of military disappearance. "AWOL" stands for “absence without official leave.” This means a soldier is missing from duty without permission. A solider found guilty of an AWOL charge can suffer serious punishment.

In civilian life, it has a similar meaning. AWOL means you were supposed to be somewhere but were not. For example, if my friend offered to help at my ukulele concert but did not show up, she is AWOL.

Military people have great acronyms to describe a situation that has gone terribly wrong.

FUBAR means something severely disorganized, damaged or ruined. Some say it stands for “fouled up beyond all repair.” Other say it stands for “fouled up beyond all recognition.”

SNAFU has a similar meaning. This acronym stands for “situation normal: all fouled up.” In other words, things are not going well, as usual.

We should note, the soldier who invented these acronyms may not originally have used the word “fouled.” They may have used a more offensive word that means the same thing. But that is just not VOA Learning English style.

I’m Anna Matteo.

I am not MIA or AWOL. I am reporting for duty from Washington, D.C.

Here is the United States Army Field Band and Soldier's Chorus performing "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver edited the story.

What acronyms do you in your language? Do you use military words in everyday conversations? Please share in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

novice n. a person who has just started learning or doing something

fouled v. placed in a situation that impedes physical movement

Detecting v. to discover or notice the presence of (something that is hidden or hard to see, hear, taste, etc.

Ranging v. to place among others in a position or situation

origin - n. the point or place where something begins

ukelele - n. a musical instrument with four strings

conversation - n. a discussion involving two or more people

band - n. a group of musicians who perform together

concert - n. a musical performance

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