The military services all have their own languages, seemingly designed to confuse or embarrass new members and outsiders. But one military dad is on a mission to demystify the jargon ― and maybe spare a future private from heading out to retrieve a box of grid squares.
Marine dad and retired Navy civilian Russ Scholl’s “Periodic Table of Military Slang” lays out and defines 321 of the military’s most amusing and esoteric terms and phrases, arranging them neatly by service branch and historical era. Those who have spent time around the military will know at least some of the table’s entries; few are likely to recognize them all.
Scholl told Marine Corps Times he got the inspiration to create some kind of in-depth military glossary back in 1985, when he began his three-decade career working for the Navy.
As a civilian working in Navy Recreation at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C., he said, he was frequently confused by the terminology his colleagues used. So, he said, he purchased an inexpensive stenographer’s notebook and started jotting down the terms he heard.
“I quickly filled up one and started another, and then another,” Scholl remembered. “And after a while, you know, I kind of got the flavor of things, but I was still jotting stuff down.”
It would be decades before he figured out what to do with the notebooks. But he’d always known that he wanted to pay tribute somehow to his family’s robust legacy of military service.
Scholl said his grandfather, a career soldier, saw service in World War I; his father saw combat with the Army in World War II, serving from the D-Day landings to the end of the war in Germany; and his brother-in-law, also a soldier, deployed to Vietnam. The family added another service legacy in 2008, when Russ’s son Wesley joined the Marine Corps as an information technology specialist.
Thus, he said, while the first sheet of the poster set features contemporary terms divided by service, the second highlights slang that evokes bygone eras. Examples include “battery acid” for the acerbic lemonade powder included in World War II K-rations; “galloping dandruff” for lice and other body-infesting critters in World War I; and “crunchies” for the ground-pounders of the Vietnam War.
“John Wayne” has no less than four entries on the poster set: the name of the actor, who often portrayed troops on the silver screen but never served himself, has been used to invoke everything from a gratuitous risk-taker to “rough and tough” ration-kit toilet paper.
Scholl finally had time to return to his notebook collection in 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A ski instructor who divides his time between Virginia and Colorado, Scholl first created a “Periodic Table of Snow,” compiling 133 slang words and phrases used by ski bunnies and other winter outdoor enthusiasts.
Then, it occurred to him that he could use the same format to make sense of his military jargon collection. The work was taxing ― for each term, he tried to collect three or four online sources for verification, and, as possible, run it by his son and other veterans. But he also loved the chance to write about his personal favorites, including “farts and darts” for the decor on a field-grade Air Force officer’s cover, and “mail buoy,” the fictitious object young enlisted sailors are ordered to watch for in a popular shipboard hazing ritual.
The veterans Scholl consulted with, he said, were most eager to contribute to the column of military terms “over-used in Hollywood movies.”
“People were giving me left and right, ‘Oh, I hate it when they say “Lock and load’” Scholl said, referring to the term made famous by the 1986 Oliver Stone film “Platoon.” “Those are eye-rollers when military [members] hear that in a movie, you know?”
As Scholl completed the project, finally copyrighting the poster in 2021 and releasing it for sale on his website, he realized that the military slang he was documenting wasn’t merely a feature of a colorful culture; through the decades, it has also been a way for troops with relatively little power in a big and often maddening bureaucratic organization to push back, poke fun and highlight the absurdities of life.
“Maybe it’s human nature,” he said. “You could be in the suck. So you might do something to laugh at it, just to lighten up, instead of dwelling on how horrible it is. You put a funny term to it and move on.”
The “Periodic Table of Military Slang” is available at Scholl’s website, RSDesign.group.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and enterprise reporter covering the U.S. military and national defense. The former managing editor of Military.com, her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Magazine, USA Today and Popular Mechanics.