Paul Dickson is one of those writers that just won’t stay in his box. Since 1972, the man has produced over 40 books, on topics which range from ice cream and kiddie toys to military history and electronic warfare. His best (and most popular) works are usually about one of the three subjects that he loves most: baseball, American history, or American slang. When he can, he combines as many of the three as possible into one book–and in the case of this one, two out of three ain’t bad.
War Slang is a dictionary of words and phrases used by American fighting men. It covers everything from military jargon and acronyms to the casual profanity, insults and ironic wordplay that are part of all military life. Dickson has divided his glossary by conflict, beginning with the Civil War and ending with the Cold War; along the way he touches on every major fracas that Americans have fought in the last 150 years, including the Spanish-American, Korea, and the Persian Gulf.
The book is not exhaustive by any means. Dickson’s dictionary is only 400 pages long—other lexicographers have given us books longer than this on the slang of one war alone! The difference is that you can sit and read Dickson’s survey of the subject just for pleasure. The man has a golden ear and a deep love of language as a living thing–which leads him to focus special attention on new words, or uses of words, that entered the general parlance through returning veterans.
Examples? Prior to the Civil War, no one ever used the word “casket” to refer to a burial box; a casket was only for jewelry. A “mugger” was originally a prisoner who would rob, beat and kill his fellow prisoners in places like Andersonville and Fort McHenry. “Son-of-a-bitch”, a term considered wildly offensive before 1860, came into common use during the Civil War (very much like “mother fucker”, a phrase that no one ever used before Korea). There are other familiar words that come from the Civil War era as well—“sideburns”, “shrapnel”, “red tape”—but as I read along, I was equally fascinated by the musical quality of the unfamiliar ones: I can’t resist a chestnut like “slumgullion”.
Dickson does excellent research, and he also lets the reader in on his legwork, citing his sources carefully and giving credit everywhere it’s due. Moreover, he has a great eye for words and phrases that have an interesting story behind them! During World War I, for example, a “Cactus Division” was organized at Camp Travis, Texas; their insignia was a cactus, with the Latin motto Noli me tangere, “Don’t touch me.” (Same as my old sorority!)
There’s also the story of “Company Q”, a special detachment of the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment during the Civil War, which was composed entirely of officers who had been broken down in rank for cowardice; the idea was to give these men a chance to redeem themselves as common soldiers. These are the kind of characters I’d like to see in a historical drama–moral ambiguity keeps me awake, whereas the usual A&E plot puts me straight to sleep…
There’s also “basket case”, a term from World War I: this would be a guy sent home in a basket with all four of his limbs blown off, forced to live out his remaining years as a helpless torso. (A lot of unofficial reports about “basket cases” circulated, although the War Department denied that even one man had been sent home in such a sorry state.) And I was interested to hear about “Baghdad Betty”, an Iraqi female disc jockey who was a favorite with Gulf War troops, just like Hanoi Hannah in Vietnam or Tokyo Rose during World War II.
All in all, it’s a great little book–especially for those of us who have a mild interest in military history and the evolution of language, but don’t feel like amassing a huge library of titles on either subject. And for those interested in purchasing a copy, I should note that a second edition of this book has recently been released in paperback–it’s a good time to pick this one up.
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