Fighting Words: Cliché Expressions | HistoryNet

Fighting Words: Cliché Expressions

By Christine Ammer
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Many military expressions that have entered everyday vocabulary have been used often enough that they can now be considered clichés. Take, for example, all present and accounted for which originated as a response to roll call. It originally was all present or accounted for, meaning everyone was either in formation or had a previously approved excuse. Currently the term is redundant: If one is present, one is accounted for. It has persisted nevertheless, both in the military and eventually in civilian vocabulary, where it may be applied to people or things.

Thus, “Are all the board members here?”

“All present and accounted for.”

Or, “Are you sure you have enough two-by-fours for the job?”

“All present and accounted for.” The British version is all present and correct, “correct” here meaning in order, and so the phrase makes more sense, but it never crossed the Atlantic.

Another term, originally a military order dating from the late nineteenth century, is rise and shine, meaning it’s time to wake up. “Shine” here means to act with alacrity even if one wants nothing more than to linger in bed. Rudyard Kipling used it figuratively in Diversity of Creatures (1917), “A high sun over Asia shouting: ‘Rise and shine!’” In civilian life, it is still used literally by a parent waking a child for school, or a camp counselor rousing his or her cabin mates.

Spit and polish, referring to taking great care with one’s appearance, also originated in the armed services. Spit might literally be used to hastily clean dusty boots before an unexpected inspection. Normally, saliva contains enzymes that help digest animal matter— including leather—and so combining spit with polish is an unlikely practice for maintaining quality footwear.

Lexicographer Paul Dickson suggests that adding water or spit to shoe polish makes it spread more smoothly. Whether or not that is true, the term came to mean paying more attention to outward appearance than to actual efficiency of effort. During World War I, “Spit and polish! We’re winning the war” was a sarcastic take by frontline troops on the concerns of career officers sitting behind their desks in the War Office. The term remains in civilian use with reference to any sort of thorough cleaning.

No spit and polish was evident in the figure of Sad Sack, a cartoon character invented by Sergeant George Baker for an extremely popular World War II strip. Represented as a limp, slovenly looking soldier in an ill-fitting, loose-hanging uniform, Sad Sack always tried his best and invariably failed at whatever he undertook. The term caught on after the war and was used to describe any inept individual in civilian life. It is heard less often today but has not quite died out.

A harsh command to the inept might be shape up or ship out. Despite its seeming naval meaning, it originated during World War II in the American armed forces and was applied to all the services. It literally meant, “Either behave like a soldier (or sailor or marine) or be sent overseas to a combat zone.” After the war, it was extended to any situation asking for improved performance, such as an employee not finishing her work on time and thus at risk of being fired, or a baseball pitcher allowing too many hits and risking being benched or sent down to the minor leagues.

In any endeavor, things can go wrong. A particularly pessimistic view is Murphy’s Law, which insists that if anything can go wrong, it will. It apparently originated in the mid-twentieth century at Edwards Air Force Base. There in 1949 Captain Ed Murphy, an engineer, frustrated by a malfunctioning part, said of the technician responsible, “If there is any way to do things wrong, he will.”

Apparently, within weeks this statement became known as Murphy’s Law. By about 1960, it had entered civilian life, applied to just about any mistake or mishap. During the Gulf War, it was elaborated into Murphy’s Laws for Grunts, which stated in numerous ways that for “grunts,” or infantrymen, life is unfair and nothing will go according to plan. There were numerous such “laws,” among them “Friendly fire—isn’t,” “Never forget that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder,” “The easy way is always mined,” and “If the enemy is in range, so are you.”

A more optimistic, if hyperbolic, term is pinpoint accuracy. Originating near the end of World War II, it referred to bombing enemy targets with extreme precision. Obviously, no bomb could really be aimed to hit the head of a pin, but the term survived. Later it was extended to the accuracy of other weapons, and still later to more generalized use. For example, “That violinist plays with pinpoint accuracy; he hasn’t missed a note.”

Another positive, much older expression is to have a field day. It dates from the mid-eightenth century and originally meant a day set aside for troop maneuvers, a meaning that persists. By the early nineteenth century, it began to be transferred to other situations, at first involving a group outing, as in “Bill’s class is having a field day Thursday,” and later to any pleasant experience, as “Mary’s having a field day with her new mountain bike.”


Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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