“AN ARMY MARCHES ON ITS STOMACH” is a saying often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. But troops also need clothing and personal items and containers to carry them, and these as well as food have given rise to some colorful terminology.
One such term, of somewhat questionable etymology, is wardrobe, which in the late 1300s came from the Old French warderobe. Allegedly this originally denoted a room or compartment used to store and guard (ward) valuables (robe) captured from the enemy. In the next two centuries the term came to mean simply a place for storing valuables, although Shakespeare still referred to it as containing armor, and later still it denoted a place to keep clothing (and the clothing itself).
During the American Revolution a soldier carried his personal items in a haversack, a name and device that replaced the snapsack common in the 17th century. A light rectangular bag about one foot square, the haversack was carried suspended from the right shoulder. A knapsack, a term adopted from Old German and Dutch in the 17th century, was worn on the back and held heavier items. U.S. soldiers in World War II used the expression AWOL bag for a small handbag large enough to carry a few personal items, such as a shaving kit and change of underwear, clothing and socks—the basic needs for a soldier going AWOL. The term was also used for items needed for a legitimate weekend leave.
A haversack might hold a soldier’s food for a day. The French first used their word ration, meaning a reckoning or calculation, for soldier’s daily allotment of food in about 1700. In the United States during the American Revolution, a soldier’s ration consisted mostly of beef, peas, and rice. During the Civil War canned goods began to be used, and in time, soldiers were issued self-contained kits of canned meat, bread, coffee, sugar, and salt.
During World War I lightweight preserved meats, salted or dried, were substituted in rations so troops on foot could carry more food. Early in World War II various specialized field rations were introduced, some for jungle combat and others for mountain combat, but beginning in the latter part of that war and through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, these were eliminated and heavy canned C rations (individual, precooked and prepared wet rations) were substituted.
In 1958 the “C rat” was replaced with the MCI (Meal Combat Individual), but the MCI was so similar that troops continued to call it a C ration. The MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) was formally adopted in 1975 but not issued until 1981. Its contents have since been changed numerous times to make them more palatable, variable, and easier to use.
During World War II troops gave the name P-38 to a small can opener that could be carried on a key ring or dog tag. Probably because it was widely considered a great military invention, it was named for one of the most effective fighter planes of the war.
IT’S HARD TO SAY WHEN OFFICIAL military uniforms came into use, but surely they were devised early on to identify troops of different armies and navies. In the 1700s the British military adopted the Arab word mufti to describe civilian dress. Originally meaning a religious official, in the 1800s it came to refer to plain clothes worn by anyone who has the right to wear a uniform. The slang name civvies, for civilian clothes, was first used in Britain during World War I and became very popular in the American armed forces during World War II.
The color khaki was first used for British uniforms during the Abyssinian campaign (in present-day Ethiopia) of 1867–1868. The name came from Hindi and Urdu words for “soil color,” in turn derived from Turkish for “soil.” Khaki was adopted for U.S. army uniforms during the Spanish-American War. A dark blue called navy blue was adopted, along with white, for the Royal Navy in 1748 and subsequently by other navies throughout the world.
The Mexican War of 1846 brought the first widespread use of chevrons to denote rank on U.S. uniforms. They appeared on the coat sleeves of noncommissioned officers in 1821 and are still featured exclusively on NCO uniforms; other nations use them to denote ranks of commissioned officers as well.
In Old French, chevron was an architectural term that referred to the meeting point of a building’s rafters, the apex of a roof. Its literal meaning—the main supports of a house—was extended to the figurative in medieval times, when knights and men at arms began to use the representational inverted V as an emblem of their role. Chevron derives from the French word for goat, chèvre, whose horns suggest the shape.
American troops devised several derogatory names for army dress. One, dating from World War II, was GI gunboats for black military service shoes. The metal helmet American soldiers wore was called a steel pot for its resemblance to a cooking vessel. A more re-cent slang term, from the 1990s, was BCGs, or birth control glasses, for military–issue eyeglasses considered so ugly that no one would want to make a baby with a soldier wearing them.
A revised and greatly expanded edition of Christine Ammer’s book Fighting Words from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers is now available as a Kindle e-book.