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The Army's Other Language

by Christopher Donovan about a month ago in Historical

Translating military talk for civilians

A few years ago (in the blessed, pre-Covid days), I found myself in a pub quiz. No great surprise there - I love a quiz, as much as I love the pub.

Ordinarily, I'm quite handy to have on your team. For some reason, I am capable of retaining a vast amount of trivial information regarding things like sporting events, pop music, and obscure facts from history. The fact that I can do this, but have almost zero 'life-smarts', is source of perennial annoyance to me.

Trust me; I really wish I could swap my ability to list all The Beatles' number one singles for being able to construct a flat-pack bookcase, but I can't.

It's just the bizarre way I was made.

However, on this occasion, there was a category that stumped me: The slang of the British military. This annoyed me because it was just the kind of nonsense my brain should have excelled at. Doubly-so considering that I was born and raised in Aldershot, the home of the British Army.

Alas, I was useless. I got exactly zero questions correct.

However, undeterred, I spent a few happy hours educating myself just in case the topic ever arose again.

It didn't.

But, given that the pubs will soon be open again, and we'll be able to participate in our beloved quizzes once more, I'm going to share with you what I discovered just in case this random topic ever comes up. It probably won't (let's face it - it'd have to be a very niche quiz you're attending), but - even if it doesn't - some of these are so daft they warrant listing.

If nothing else, they prove that not only is the British Army a finely-tuned military machine, it's also absolutely bonkers.

So, here's a crash course in army-talk, an A to Z of utterly silly expressions:

A is for... Ally

This is a good thing. It's used as an adjective to describe how great another soldier's kit looks. It's also rarely employed; someone would have had to have spent a very long time polishing everything to receive such an accolade.

The only exception is the elite S.A.S - they're so cool, everything about them is automatically 'ally.' The lucky blighters.

B is for... Badmin

And this one isn't so good. It's a derogatory word used to describe someone with poor organizational or administration skills. In other words, someone like me. Trust me, I am so badmin it's unbelievable.

C is for... Crap Hat

The maroon-beret-wearing Parachute Regiment are a proud lot. In other words, they think they're the best. Anyone in the Army who is not in their regiment (and therefore wears a different colored hat), is given this title. Harsh.

D is for... Dhobi Dust

Washing powder. Dhobi dust means washing powder. It takes just as much time to say 'washing powder' as it does 'Dhobi dust' but - come on - the latter is a million more times more fun. 'Dhobi' is originally an Indian word, meaning laundry, and the Army has been using this colorful expression ever since they were deployed there in the days of the Raj.

(It goes without saying that a washing machine is called a 'dhobi engine.')

E is for... Egg Banjo

This means a fried egg sandwich. It's called a banjo because - invariably - whilst eating one, yolk squirts free, and ends up on your clothes. The attempt to flick the errant egg off you resemble someone strumming a banjo.

I now refuse to use the term 'sandwich' at all, and exclusively employ the word 'banjo'. The confusion this causes when it comes to ordering a light snack in a restaurant is a delightful bonus.

F is for... Foxtrot Oscar

An ultra polite way of asking someone to... well, go somewhere else. Now.

(I also have to mention 'furry crocodile' - which is what soldiers call a dog. And this is now what I call all canines because it makes me giggle.)

G is for... Green Time Machine

A sleeping bag. That's almost poetry.

H is for... Hoofing

Short for excellent or amazing. I would like to use this, but I'm not sure if it'll make me sound more manly, or like I've stumbled from the pages a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

(As there's nothing for 'I', I'm going to throw in another one for 'H.' 'Horror bag' which means packed lunch. So called because it contained - at best - a withered sandwich ('banjo') smeared with something unrecognizable, a bag of potato chips made by a brand no-one has heard of, and a small can of non-brand cola. Imagine a Happy Meal assembled by that chef off The Muppets and you're half-way there.)

J is for... Jack

Another insult, this time signifying someone workshy. (Like 'badmin', can again be applied to me.)

K is for... KFS

Knife, fork, and spoon - simple.

L is for... Lizard

Yet another insult, bestowed upon someone who screws up in the most idiotic way (e.g. "Writing this article was a right lizard idea").

M is for... Marking Time

This literally refers to a horrible drill exercise where soldiers have to run on the spot whilst trying to keep their upper halves static. However, it can also be used to describe a career that is going nowhere (much like that of my writing).

N is for... NAAFI

Acronym for 'Navy, Army and Air Force Institute' (i.e. somewhere personnel go to buy sweets, and drink - there's probably an option to buy an 'egg banjo' and a 'horror bag').

O is for... Oggin

The sea. No-one quite knows where this came from - the most likely scenario that it was all due to someone once mispronouncing the word 'ocean.' Regardless of its etymological origins, it's what the military calls any large body of water.

P is for... Pull up a sandbag

Army slang meaning to tell a story. And one that has usually been embellished. "Pull up a sandbag, and let me tell you about that night in..."

(As there's no 'Q', you can have another 'P': I've plumped for 'Pull the Black and Yellow' which means to leave, and comes from the colours of an ejector seat handle.)

R is for... Redders

Simple - means hot or warm (and therefore rarely used whilst in the UK). "I can't wait until Summer - so I can be nice and redders."

S is for... Scoff or Scran

Slang for food (yes - the Army do appear to have an inordinate number of words reserved for food and drink).

T is for... Threaders

A rather bizarre way of saying one is fed up or angry. No-one quite knows where this came from, but one guess is that is descends from rhyming slang for 'spare' (as in 'I'm going spare', i.e. crazy or mad), which used to 'threadbare.' Over time it was just shortened to 'threaders.'

Like most rhyming slang, it makes no sense, and is only liable to cause confusion if used in everyday speech (which is why I like to use it).

U is for...Ulu

Short for a rural or remote area. Originally derived for the Malay word for 'jungle.' At least that one makes some sense.

V is for...Volleyball Player

Or, in other words, a fire fighter. They've been given the sporting nickname because their slowness to respond to incidents was put down to the fact they'd rather finish the game volleyball they were playing than actually do their job.

I have no way of discerning the truth of this, or whether it's a variation on the whole 'crap hat' thing.

W is for... Walt or Walter Mitty

Echoing the titular fictional character, this moniker is given to those who like to embellish their exploits whilst they were in Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Their tall-tales normally revolve around how they once took on overwhelming odds and emerged victorious. Stories ordinarily begin with the words, "Pull up and sandbag, and let me tell you about the time..."

As there's no 'X' you can have a bonus 'W' - 'WAGI.' Much like the 'volleyball player' expression, this is also rooted in sarcasm, and means, "What a good idea" (to be said when the idea in question is blatantly NOT a good idea - though ideally not in earshot of your commanding officer).

Y is for... Yomp

Now, this is unpleasant. It's military slang for a very, very long march normally weighed down with a heavy load. But, can also be metaphorical for anything demanding (e.g. "This article is a bit of a yomp").

Z is for...Zob

In other words, a commissioned officer. Why? No idea. A plastic Zob is a new officer just out of training. Obviously...

So, that's it; a crash course in military speak.

Some of it makes no sense; some of it a little. However, that hasn't stopped me from incorporating a select few in my everyday speech. No-one else knows what I'm talking about, but that's half the fun.

I'm 'pulling the black and yellow' as it's time to 'foxtrot oscar' to the old 'green time machine.' I'll have to empty the 'Dhobi engine' beforehand - I'll be 'threaders' if I forget. I may have an 'egg banjo' before I retire. I hope you've not found this too much of a 'yomp', but instead found it 'hoofing.'

Over and out.


If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal. Among other things, I write about film, theatre, and mental health: My article about growing up in Aldershot - the home of the British Army - can be found here:

You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.

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Christopher Donovan
Christopher Donovan
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Christopher Donovan


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