You’re in the fucking army now.

My father-in-law was an elegant man who spoke five languages—six if you count bad language. The latter was seldom spoken in public, but in private among family and friends he could light up the sky with his procession of incandescent oaths. When he caught himself, which was not often, he would then apologize claiming that it was a nasty habit he picked up in the army. Yes, “war is hell,” as the saying goes, and a great deal more. My father-in-law was not alone in this predicament. Most of the veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War with whom I have spoken have, like my father-in-law, blamed the military lifestyle and, in particular, life during wartime, as the source for their unbridled profanity. Considering the unfamiliar, trying, and often life-threatening circumstances, who can blame them? It seems to make sense, then, to dive back into in those trenches.


War had been a loosening force for language for several reasons. On a superficial level, once a young fellow put that uniform on, he was a man in a man’s world—and mannerisms as well as language followed suit. In part, it was the game of the strutting peacock. Then there was the actual fighting. If a legion of cussing would follow the simple act of chipping an incisor on a ranch-flavored taco chip, think of what losing limbs—yours or anyone else’s—would provoke. With so much devastation around, and with the resultant frustration and anger for having to suffer from or render such a degree of violence, how could one not swear? After being accustomed to a relatively comfortable life at home, with wife and family, the soldier was suddenly forced to endure the foulest of living conditions—and strictly in the company of other men. The often-sleep-deprived human body was pressed to the limit. As to be expected, over time, swearing became a matter of course—on and off the battlefield.

Accompanying the physical hardships was the psychological strain of war. The onus of death hovered over you. What were mere words next to watching your buddies be ripped to bits and your need to return the slaughter as retribution or just survival? Allen Walker Read, in an article about the F-word—which actually did not include the word itself—commented on the travesties of war and the verbal repercussions: “The soldier, compelled to outrage his inmost nature by killing his fellow human beings, found life topsy-turvy in so many respects that it is small wonder that his observance of taboo was in the inverted manner. . . . With nerves relentlessly exacerbated by gunfire, the unnatural way of life, and the imminence of a hideous death, the soldier could find fitting expression only in terms that according to teaching from his childhood were foul and disgusting.” Swearing was a cathartic release—a primal response to the hammer of the gods smashing you to a bloody pulp. If the word “fucking” was used as an adjective to modify every other word of a soldier’s speech, “In any light, this would seem appropriate.”

In light of this verbal intemperance, there is another curious resonance to swearing that we will come upon from time to time, and that is the power it had when it was omitted. If the pro forma insertion of a four-letter word in a command is suddenly dropped, it is conspicuous in its absence. In the book Songs and Slangs of the British Soldiers, editor John Brophy claimed that swearing was so routine that you naturally anticipated your sergeant barking, “Get your — —ing rifles” during the course of a normal day. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger. Mencken referred to the diminution of the effect of swearing by overuse as dephlogistication. Literally the word means the “removal of phlogiston,” which is to say the inherent flammability of an object. His point is well taken in that when a word loses its incendiary power, we must find a substitution, be it another word or the absence of the expected term entirely. The defusing of the F-bomb, and its ensuing replacement by an inoffensive substitute, can be found in the following joke that was popular with American soldiers during World War II. I have mentioned its passive offspring in a previous blog, but the original seems to ring with a bit more resolve:

A soldier is telling about a date he went on with a friend while on leave. “It’s the first fucken furlough they gave us in six fucken months, I put my fucken uniform in a fucken locker at the ‘Y,’ and we went out and had a hell of a fucken time. We picked up two fucken broads in some fucken beer-joint and took ’em to a fucken hotel and laid ’em out on the fucken bed, and had sexual intercourse.

American cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell recounts one incident of a group of soldiers entering a church, with one man forgetting to take of his cap. An RAF sergeant-major yanked it off and bellowed, “Take yer fuckin ’at off in the ’ouse of God, cunt!” As much as one could wish it so, swearing does not have a switch that you can turn off simply because you’re in your barracks safe and sound or back home in the privacy of your den to make it so. It was not an easy chore, particularly since it felt so good to freely vocalize your feelings. For those men who remained in the armed forces, colorful cursing and swearing from NCOs up to the brass was de rigueur. Whether near to the front line or far from the immediate dangers of combat, there was no shortage of swearing among troops. All at once the soldier was a child frightened by the perilous unknown, as well as the teen who was challenging authority, and finally as the wizened adult who realized that no matter what, he was not the master of his own fate—he was “fucked.”

Of course, this is not to say that swearing in wartime was not without its sense of humor. Indeed, what remotely sane person would deny that a little humor goes a long way to relieve the stress of formidable situations? This feisty contrariety carried over into daily routine. It seemed to demand that you be contrary and that you object to everything. This was the army, and you were taught to fight. This included fighting the army that ordered you about. If euphemism was a passive suppression of negative expressions in exchange for positive ones, dysphemism was an unmitigated flaunting of actively negative substitutions. Dysphemism was everywhere, and almost everything resounded with cantankerous swearing—even the best situations. The French writer Albert Carnoy succinctly summed up the difference: “Dysphemism is a stimulant, whereas euphemism is a sedative.” Think of the army acronyms that emerged: SNAFU—Situation Normal: All Fucked Up; FUMTU (Fucked Up More Than Usual); and FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition). I especially like the nearly forgotten NORWICH ([K]Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home).

The army naturally could not embrace war as a favorable activity, so it fostered an ambivalent love-hate relationship with all things military. From life-threatening situations right down to the forgettable edibles designated as army chow, the soldier was expected to display a requisite aversion. Some G.I.s may not have eaten better in their lives, but their chipped beef on toast was still “shit on a shingle.” My father often spoke fondly about those gravy sopped plates of “SOS.” (Of course, that may have been less out of nostalgia. When it came to cooking, my mother was something of an assassin in the kitchen—but that is another bloody story entirely.)

This is a modified excerpt from my Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America.

13 thoughts on “You’re in the fucking army now.

  1. Ado Annie June 1, 2015 / 11:15 pm

    Effing well said. It always amazed me that my father came back from the Pacific never uttering anything more salty than gee, golly or gosh, whereas I came back from Korea (during Vietnam) with a vocabulary that would light sterno, but I worked hard to keep it under control. So much so that one day at work when a 10 lb metal gear was accidentally dropped on my foot the men standing around me were struck silent with shock and it took some time before they realized something was wrong other that what they heard coming out of my mouth. Thinking back on it the incident was funny, but at the time I had to punch one of them in the arm to get him to help me limp to the infirmary. I guess he’d never heard a woman string together that many eloquent ear searing oaths while hopping on one foot. But from that day on I was ‘one of the guys.’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rob Chirico June 2, 2015 / 2:28 am

      During WWll the women in the forces found equal ground in some places, and there was even a sign in one army base that read, “Watch your language, gentlemen may be present.” I recall that it may have been in Philadelphia, which may say something, but I’m not the one to say what.

      Liked by 3 people

      • CGHill June 5, 2015 / 2:58 am

        When I was in BCT back in the early 70s, a couple of us wangled just enough on-post privilege to get within hearing distance of one of the female training companies. It was then that I learned that drill sergeants, men or women, were equally capable of swearing up a storm.

        Like

  2. sesquiotic June 3, 2015 / 7:25 pm

    One guy I know said if you took away peanut butter and the word “fuck” army guys would starve and not be able to tell you.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Don June 3, 2015 / 11:40 pm

    Based on my experience in the peacetime Navy of the mid-’70s, war conditions are not required to inspire gratuitous profanity in the military. After one deployment, my buddy and I went to dinner, and after he ordered, he said, “Did I just say, ‘I’ll have a fuckin’ bowl of chili’?” And neither of us could remember — if he said it, it was too natural for us to notice the incongruity with the civilian setting.

    Most of the terms I often heard (e.g., “dick-skinners” for hands) show up in this wonderful compendium of Naval Terminology, Jargon & Slang:

    http://www.hazegray.org/faq/slang1.htm
    http://www.hazegray.org/faq/slang2.htm

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ado Annie June 4, 2015 / 7:54 pm

      Dolphin flogger? 😉

      Like

  4. Dick Curwin August 20, 2015 / 8:00 am

    After basic I came home and was invited to my girlfriends home for Xmas dinner. To make it short, I asked “will somebody pass me the damned gravy? The room went silent and I silently got up and walked towards the door where I started putting my goulashes on. My girlfriends mother came and said “Don’t be embarrassed, we all know you’ve been in those barracks for two months, please come back”

    I replied “No thank you misses T., I’d just fuck up again.”

    Liked by 1 person

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