Language, Military: Informal Speech

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Language, Military: Informal Speech. Through language, groups of individuals form what can be termed discourse communities. By using slang and jargon unknown to the outsider, individual members of specific groups form bonds of identification with one another. The language used within a given community serves both to construct a vision of the world into which initiates are socialized and to draw a line between those in the group and those on the outside. In official language, this occurs through the use of technical terms—acronyms and jargon. In informal language, it is accomplished by knowledge of terms whose meanings are not available except through direct participation in the group—meanings that appear in no formal glossary.

Informal military language reinforces a service member's primary identity as being part of the group, along with those who share his or her language. Beyond that, informal language constructs a vision of the world that becomes the defining characteristic of group membership. This is done most directly through naming. The names we give to things are of vital importance in understanding the view of the world the namers participate in and is an important part of all language use. Names of objects, perhaps more than any other words, constitute implicit arguments. In informal language, names are often metaphors. Sometimes, these metaphors are obscure. When naval officers associated with aviation refer to the surface fleet surrounding and supporting the carriers as “greyhounds,” they use language that seems positive, implying an image of sleekness and speed. However, the relationship drawn on is that between dog and master. The argument, in other words, is that the rest of the surface fleet is useful insofar as it serves the needs dictated by the carriers. Similarly, members of the U.S. military who handle nuclear weapons informally use metaphors, naming places where U.S. nuclear bombs are aimed as “home addresses” and referring to nuclear missiles on board U.S. submarines as “Christmas trees.” These homey and domestic metaphors convey the meaning that U.S. nuclear weapons, although extraordinarily destructive, are safe for the U.S. military to handle.

Such examples point to another important function of language. The arguments that are implicit in the words we use, particularly the names, often are those that construct hierarchies. Discourse communities use language that possesses its own internal symbolic logic, and this places the members of the community in a hierarchical relationship with those of other communities. Language not only bonds the membership; it also helps construct a world view in which that membership can be secure in the superiority of its knowledge. Because language is never value‐neutral but always contains embedded arguments, it is always taking a position on whether that which is named is “good” or “bad.” Thus, homey metaphors such as the one about “Christmas trees” bond members of the military community and place a positive value on their work.

This function of informal language will generate terms and labels that differ from official usage in several ways. Such terms may be less euphemistic. This is in part because official terminology is intended as an aid to the institution as it represents itself to outsiders, while informal language is designed to emphasize the insider status of participants. Further, informal language is likely to create a bond between the members of the community even if that bond is created by highlighting divisions between the individuals and the institutions they represent that would not be acceptable in formal use.

In the U.S. military, a proportion of informal language is used to reinforce a worldview that emphasizes the importance of a given service or warfare community versus others. All are members of the military, officially a single institution with the same mission and perspective. Unofficially, informal language creates connections and identity particularly through defining the group in terms of what it is not: the navy, then, defines itself in part as being not the army or air force. Naval personnel who do not serve on submarines will say that there are two kinds of ships: “submarines and targets.” Air force personnel refer to anyone in naval uniform as a “squid.” Such distinctions can be achieved through joking and narratives as well. Army personnel will say that “the difference between the Army and the Marines is that the Army will call in air strikes and then take the hill, while the Marines will take the hill and then call in air strikes.”

Informal language can also serve, particularly during times of war, to dehumanize the enemy. This can be accomplished, as in official terminology, through the naming of enemy combatants in a sterile or neutral way, in order to elide the fact that combat involves the killing of human beings. But it is more likely to function by referents implying that enemy personnel are inferior, that they are “gooks” or “camel jockeys.”

Because of the extensive media coverage of most military operations, many military terms have entered into the civilian lexicon. Indeed, a feedback loop of sorts operates, wherein military terms enter civilian usage as metaphors while linguistic terms from civilian life simultaneously enter military usage. In many civilian communities, militarized language denotes a level of seriousness that could not be conveyed as effectively in other ways. Thus, the Clinton headquarters in the 1992 presidential campaign was the “War Room”; Arkansas's system of substitutions in college basketball is known as “platooning”; team leaders are “floor generals”; and business schools assign Sun Tzu and the U.S. Marine Corps doctrinal manuals about tactics and strategy. At the same time, language and metaphors from civilian life cycle into military usage, downplaying the level of seriousness involved. Particularly prevalent is the language of sports and games, so that the now famous “Left Hook” in the Saudi Desert was the “Hail Mary pass” and the war began with a “kickoff” or a “tip‐off.”

All of these linguistic tools facilitate the use of language itself as both a source for, and mechanism to sustain, a given community, while simultaneously serving to define the community in positive ways by the use of arguments implicit in the words chosen.


Kenneth Burke , Language as Symbolic Action, 1966.
Carol Cohn , Slick'ems, Glick'ems, Christmas Trees and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 43 (1987), pp. 17–24.
Michael Shapiro , Representing World Politics: The Sport/War Intertext, in James Der Derian and Michael Shapiro, eds., International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics, 1989.
Daniel Hallin , TV's Clean Little War, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 47 (1991), pp. 17–24.

Cori Dauber