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Historically, the U.S. military has been a highly effective conduit for the seemingly spontaneous transmission of words and phrases between different demographics and into the larger American vernacular. Colorful wordplay—especially before the abolishment of the draft in 1973—doesn’t so much seem to creep across the map as appear everywhere at once. Here are 10 common phrases whose popularity can be traced to the U.S. military.
1. Secret Squirrel
You may know him as the mascot of ClearanceJobs. It’s hard to find a military intelligence unit or CIA office that doesn’t use the phrase “secret squirrel” in conversation and internal memos. Notably, the phrase originated on television. In 1965, Hanna-Barbera produced a sendup of spy flicks, which starred a squirrel wearing a trench coat. The cartoon was, of course, “Secret Squirrel.” For whatever reason—pleasing alliteration, most likely—the military adopted the phrase, and service members began applying it to all things classified. During the Gulf War, the longest combat mission in Strategic Air Command’s history was officially called SENIOR SURPRISE; internally, airmen called it SECRET SQUIRREL. (The unit’s patch reflects the unofficial naming.) Later, during negotiations in 2014 to re-normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, the Obama administration and Castro regime entered talks to exchange prisoners. The secret talks were called Project Ardilla, which is Spanish for “squirrel.” In this case, the secret variety.
2. Gung Ho
Someone who is “gung ho” about something is endlessly enthusiastic to achieve his or her aims. Naturally, the Marine Corps is a big fan of the phrase. And though “gung ho” seems like the kind of obscure expression that might harken back to the military branch’s 18th century origin, it actually comes from the Pacific theater of World War II. The phrase translates literally to “work together,” and was introduced to 2nd Marine Raider Battalion by its commander, Major Evans Carlson. The phrase spread from there to the rest of the Corps.
3. Dear John
The infamous breakup letter penned to an absent boyfriend or husband was first popularized during World War II. As deployments by service members stretched from months to years, bonds frayed as those back home continued on with their lives. Once affectionate letter salutations—“Dearest love of mine,” for example—over time grew cold, into the more formal “Dear John.” Doomed relationships followed.
4. Balls to the Wall
No, the phrase is not anatomical. Rather, it refers to the grips on levers in an airplane’s cockpit. To go balls to the wall—that is, an all-out effort—is to push the plane’s throttle all the way forward. Its first appearance in print can be found in a book by Frank Harvey, where he writes: “You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil.”
You’re most likely to hear this phrase when someone jumps from a considerable height. This is appropriate, as the phrase dates to the earliest U.S. Army paratroopers, who were then developing the tactics that airborne units would eventually use during World War II. The idea to shout the word came after paratroopers watched the 1939 film of the same name. To show presence of mind and lack of fear, paratroopers shouted the phrase after exiting the aircraft. It became an unofficial—and then official—paratrooper rally cry. Today, the word appears on the insignia of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.
6. For the birds
If something is for the birds, it is trivial or beneath contempt. Like so many American idioms, this one traces back to World War II. The full expression was “sh*t for the birds,” a reference by soldiers to birds pecking around manure on a farm.
When you want someone to hurry up, you might toss out the words, “Chop-chop.” The phrase traces its origins to the 19th century, and the Pidgin English spoken by Chinese traders who interacted with Westerners. The U.S. military formally adopted the phrase in 1916, when it appeared in the U.S. Army Signal book. Its usage went nova during World War II.
Snafu wasn’t always a word; it was once an abbreviation. SNAFU has been traced to the American military during the second World War, and stands for “Situation normal: all fouled up.” (The F doesn’t always stand for “fouled.”)
9. Basket Case
Today, a basket case is someone who is so worried about something that he or she is losing control of his or her mental faculties. The phrase, which dates back to World War I, originally meant a soldier who has lost his or her arms and legs. It was popularized when the surgeon general denied that there were any basket cases in military hospitals. Newspapers reported on the comment by the surgeon general, which necessitated an explanation of the meaning of “basket case.” It grew in popularity from there.
During the Civil War, Union prisoners held at the POW camp at Andersonville, Ga. were said to be attempting an escape if they crossed a certain line beyond the stockade wall. At that point, they could be shot on sight. Thus, a dead line. Press coverage of the war brought the expression into popular usage.