22 Words and Phrases You Had No Clue Originated in the Military
The term “feeling blue” originated in the Navy. Who knew?
Taken aback: A ship in the wind
When a ship gets caught in a sudden shift of wind, it is “taken aback.” The ordeal is particularly hazardous when the sails blow back against the masts, putting them in danger of breaking off. Here are some fascinating secret code words you’re not meant to know.
Bite the bullet: How soldiers coped with pain
To decide to begin an unpleasant yet unavoidable experience is to “bite the bullet.” But rest assured knowing your predicament is likely not as nasty as the soldiers’ with whom this phrase originated. Before anesthetics and painkillers were invented, wounded fighters would literally bite down on a bullet to cope with the pain of a surgical procedure. Why a bullet? The lead they’re made of is more malleable than stones and other battlefield finds, and therefore less likely to break the patient’s teeth.
With flying colors: A victorious Navy ship
If a Navy ship returned to its home port after battle with its flags—or “colors”—flying, it indicated that the ship had been victorious. Now, the phrase means to do something well. Here are some words we use all the time that were invented totally by accident.
Scuttlebutt: Sailors’ water-cooler talk
Meaning to gossip, the word “scuttlebutt” is a sailor’s version of water-cooler talk. Aboard ships, a scuttlebutt is a drinking fountain used by the crew. The chatter that goes on around it led to the word’s modern definition.
Murphy’s Law: From a pessimistic captain
“If there’s more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way,” said Captain Edward A. Murphy to his assistant after testing a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base in 1948. The exchange led to the use of “Murphy’s Law”: If anything can go wrong, it will. Here are some more words you had no idea were inspired by real people.
Hot shot: Heated cannonballs
In modern usage, a “hot shot” is someone of great importance. One possible origin of the term could be the use of heated cannonballs—a hot shot—and the men who loaded them. The task would have required great skill and been an important role in battle. Another origin could be someone who shoots recklessly.
Chewing the fat: Vintage food for men at sea
Before ships were equipped with refrigerators, salted beef—which was cheap and would keep well—was standard fare for men at sea. One piece of the jerky could often be chewed for hours. Now, the phrase means to have an informal chat with someone—something the sailors likely did whilst “chewing the fat.” Check out these funny military cartoons that’ll make you appreciate our vets.
Over the top: Bold in battle
To be “over the top” is to act in an excessive or unnecessary manner. The term was originally much more literal. In battle, being over the top meant to launch an attack by climbing over the sandbag parapet in front of a trench. It soon became synonymous with any dangerous venture.
Loose cannon: Potential danger on a ship during a storm
President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to use this term when he told a journalist he didn’t “want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.” His reference was spot on: Before ships were equipped with fixed-turret guns, cannons were mounted on wheels and rolled between gun ports. A “loose cannon” could break free in choppy waters, potentially harming sailors. Check out these other words you didn’t know were coined by U.S. presidents.