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August 19, 2001 - Military Terms in Civilian Use - 2002-01-30

AA: This is Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster ... some military terms that have come into civilian slang.

RS: Sanya Aina, a listener in Lagos, Nigeria, is writing a book about the plight of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and is curious to know some American phrases that are associated with war and peace.

AA: Next week, we'll set our sights on the language of peace. Today we turn to a professor at the National War College here in Washington, historian Mark Clodfelter.


CLODFELTER: "Given that I was an Air Force officer if something's not going right, I present a proposal, it could be 'shot down.' Also from the navy perspective my proposal was 'torpedoed.'"

RS: "So if your proposal 'blew me out of the water,' would I like it or hate it?"

CLODFELTER: "Now that's a good point. If it 'blew you out of the water,' you might have been so overcome, that you were just amazed that it was such a stunning an idea. However, on the other hand, you could have had a counter-idea and I could have 'sunk' you."

AA: Now what if someone calls your idea "over the top," slang for extreme or outlandish. Mark Clodfelter says the term was first used to describe an extreme kind of warfare.


CLODFELTER: "That would refer to trench warfare in World War One where you had two lines of trenches in fairly close proximity to one another, and typically the way you would attack your enemy is you would hit them with an artillery barrage and then when the barrage stopped, and hopefully the enemy force was hurt very badly, then your troops would climb out 'over the top' of the trench -- your trench -- and advance towards the enemy's trench."

RS: "So if you work 'in the trenches' of an organization, what would that mean?"

CLODFELTER: "Well, I would say you were perhaps deep, deep in the bowels of that organization and your odds of seeing daylight are very remote, and to use another military term you're not going to be part of the 'top brass.'"RS: "Can you tell us other words that have recently, or rather recently, made it from the military into everyday speech?"

CLODFELTER: "Perhaps the term 'friendly fire.' I think that was used frequently during the Gulf War and also during Vietnam, which means you have an idea, proposal, whatever, but it's going to be undermined, undercut, by your own organization [unintentionally]. In military terms, 'friendly fire' means that you've caused damage to your own troops. You've shot and missed the enemy and inadvertently hit your own guys."

AA: Now if a person is considered a traitor, Americans have an expression: We might call that person a "Benedict Arnold."

RS: Mark Clodfelter offered a little history lesson. Benedict Arnold was a general in the Revolutionary War against the British. He was a hero ... who ended up turning against his own country:


"He succumbed to British offers of money and was going to sell out the plans for how to attack West Point to the British, was found out about this, and then switched sides and served with the British for the rest of the war."

AA: That was in the late 1700s, yet "Benedict Arnold" -- his name -- lives on.

RS: Now on to the modern term "Catch 22", which originated as a parody of military rules and the conditions written into them. It's the creation of the late author Joseph Heller.

AA: His book "Catch 22" was published in 1961 and became an anti-war classic.


" The phrase as used was referring to pilots, air crews in World War Two and saying, well, gosh, you can't fly if you're crazy, the idea being that you would have to be crazy to fly, but if you know you're crazy, then really you're not crazy, so obviously you're cleared to go and fly, so it's a classic contradiction."

RS: In Heller's words a "Catch 22.


AA: "And, finally, what's your favorite military term?"

CLODFELTER: "'Crash and burn' is a good one. Referring to somebody who's very gifted perhaps as an 'ace.'"

AA: "Meaning a pilot who shoots down a lot of other planes."

CLODFELTER: "Yeah, but obviously it can refer to an ace corporate executive, ace tennis player, I mean it can refer to many things. The term was first used in a military capacity in World War One."

RS: Professor Mark Clodfelter at the National War College.

AA: If you have a question about American English, fire it off to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237, USA, or send e-mail to With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti