Charlie Foxtrot

“And it’s an insult to people when you say it’s an insurrection, and then a year later, nobody has been charged with that (crime),” DeSantis continued. “I think it’s very important that if this is what you said it was, why are you not charging people? So, I think it’s going to end up being just a politicized Charlie Foxtrot today.”

If you’re unfamiliar with military lingo, it’s part of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phonetic alphabet that assigned the 26 code words to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, and Zulu.

It’s likely that at some point, when on the phone with a person who’s in a cubicle, you’ve said something like, “My name is Smith, that’s ‘S’ as in Sam,” etc.

So, getting back to DeSantis, here, by “Charlie Foxtrot” he’s using military slang for “clusterfuck.” Oddly, this is fairly recent, dating to 1969, meaning “a total disaster.” It would be natural to interpret it as meaning “a cluster of fucks.” But that’s not quite right. One of the signature elements of the Vietnam War was that officers often made bad decisions. And officers wore oak-leaf clusters on their uniforms.

Ergo, a “clusterfuck” would be a disastrous situation resulting from top brass not understanding the reality on the ground. As this term emerged in general English usage, the military sense has drifted away and the common understanding is that it’s just a general cluster of fucked-up things happening.

Update: I should have been more clear that this is a speculative etymology and not a proven one. It certainly could have arisen from the general sense of “a cluster of fucked-up things happening.”

8 thoughts on “Charlie Foxtrot

  1. Paul Sampson January 12, 2022 / 5:27 am

    As to Clusterfuck, the “officers wear oak-leaf clusters” is far-fetched. Only two grades of officer–Major and Lieutenant Colonel–have oak-leaf cluster insignia of rank. The officer most likely to fuck up a soldier in Vietnam was a Second Lieutenant platoon leader, whose badge of rank is a simple gold bar. A clusterfuck is any tangle of fuck-ups that happen together. We civilians generate plenty of them.

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  2. Rob January 12, 2022 / 8:51 pm

    I’m sceptical of the idea that the “cluster” in “clusterfuck” refers to the insignia worn by senior officers during the Vietnam war. It has all the hallmarks of folk etymology, and I can’t find any convincing evidence of it on the interwebs.

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    • Patrick Collins January 15, 2022 / 8:29 pm

      I think clusterbomb is a more likely inspiration. My longer comment is awaiting moderation because of all the links.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Frank Hudson January 16, 2022 / 5:58 pm

        I was going to respond similarly — not because I have any first-hand knowledge other than living through the era — but because the insignia explanation does seem too fiddly/obscure while the term “cluster bomb” was fairly current around the same time, and connections between weapons/force and metaphoric fuck would be natural enough even if adapted unconsciously.

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  3. Mededitor January 13, 2022 / 11:30 pm

    Yes, this etymology is not proven and subject to debate. What I find compelling is the dating to 1969, the period when fragging was becoming a problem, and Congress starting to question the reporting of senior officers. The whole “fog of war” business. My thinking here is that if the origin was — arguably — “a whole bunch of fuck-ups,” it would likely have arisen earlier. But yes, I’m speculating a bit here. I’ll emend the entry.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patrick Collins January 15, 2022 / 5:33 pm

    Your 1969 example is this one, presumably:
    1969 B. E. Holley Let. 12 Mar. in Vietnam 1968–9: Battalion Surgeon’s Jrnl. (1993) 143 These are the screwups that the American public rarely hears about. They happen often enough over here that we have a term for them—‘cluster-fuck’!

    It seems more likely to me that the cluster referred to in the military usage was inspired by the cluster bomb, the vile anti-personnel weapon whose introduction to Vietnam is first attested in the Washington Post in 1965.

    http://unspeak.net/cluster-bombs/

    Here is a US Naval Weapons manual for a cluster bomb from 1/4/1965.

    https://archive.org/details/OP3345ClusterBombMk15Sadeye/page/n1/mode/2up

    The phrase cluster fuck did exist earlier, though in a more positive sense. The OED has a quote:

    1965 E. Village Other Oct. 2/3 As soon as they legalize ‘pornies’ I’ll be the first producer to hit the neighborhood theatres with my now in progress epic film titled ‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’!

    https://archive.org/details/sim_east-village-other_1965-10_1_1/page/n1/mode/2up

    The quote was from Ed Sanders. Sanders published a poetry magazine called FUCK YOU, A Magazine of the Arts from 1962 to 1966. He also performed in a rock band called The Fugs. His previous porn video magnum opus, which was the one seized by police, was called Amphetamine Head.

    https://archive.org/details/sim_avant-garde_1968-01_1/page/n55/mode/2up

    The phrase, with spelling variations, was used a few times in the 60s:

    https://archive.org/details/fword0000unse_q7u0/page/60/mode/2up?q=%22cluster-fuck%22

    A 1975 example:

    https://archive.org/details/Iss10.20/page/n15/mode/2up?q=%22cluster-fuck%22

    I use the modern phonetic alphabet at work and have printed it off for others to use. However, examples from the old RAF phonetic alphabet are still used quite commonly in the UK. Particularly: Apple/Able, Freddie, George, Harry, Peter, Sugar, Tommy and Zebra

    https://www.aircombatgroup.co.uk/flight_school/raf/RAF_Alphabet.php

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    • Mededitor January 16, 2022 / 10:07 pm

      Thank you for this. Greatly appreciated.

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      • Patrick Collins January 16, 2022 / 11:54 pm

        I forgot one thing. In that third link from last there is a reference to military usage in 1967 of “All those amtracs cluster-fuckin’ around the cp yesterday”. This might be more in the sense of a compact orgy or it might be a fuck-up as the consequences were unfortunate. However, in his prologue to his 1983 memoir that contains this reference, WD Ehrhart wrote: “Conversations have been reconstructed from memory; I have tried to make them as true to the original as possible.”

        https://archive.org/details/vietnamperkasiec0000ehrh/page/110/mode/2up

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