Best Defense

Some lively old military slang, WMP

One of my odder hobbies is reading through specialized dictionaries. It may sound boring, but to me is like sorting through the bargain bins of the tools of my trade, writing.

1024px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin

One of my odder hobbies is reading through specialized dictionaries. It may sound boring, but to me is like sorting through the bargain bins of the tools of my trade, writing.

Recently, reading a dictionary of English slang before the 20th century, I learned some new words and phrases. Most had to do with stealing, drinking, gambling, and having sex. One word from the mid-19th century that surprised me was “nark,” a term for a police spy or informer. I was surprised but pleased to see that “trump” was for several centuries a slang term for farting.

But a few were about military affairs. To wit:

“The Royal Standbacks” — contemptuous British term for a unit with a reputation for avoiding action

“skedaddle” — For bugging out, derived from a similar Greek word. Likely invented by an officer during the American Civil War, the dictionary says. Moved to England very quickly, by 1864.

“geezer” — likely derived from the Basque “giza,” for “man or fellow,” and picked up by Wellington’s soldiers in around 1811

“avast” — probably from the Dutch “hou’vast,” for “hold fast.” (Lots of nautical terms come from the Dutch, such as “yacht” and “skipper.”)

banchoot” — an extremely foul Hindi term of abuse similar but not the same as “mofo.” Picked up by Englishmen in the army in India.

“on the square” — to be a Mason. As I recall, historically a lot of U.S. Army officers were Masons

“WMP” — a Royal Navy abbreviation used in notes accepting invitations “With Much Pleasure”

Francisco Goya/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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