WASHINGTON – Like their fellow soldiers in Germany, Vietnam or Korea, those deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a language all their own, filled with black humor, cultural references and even the occasional crudity.
Most of us have heard of RADAR – originally a military acronym standing in for the cumbersome term “Radio Detection and Ranging.” We may even have encountered, or experienced, the occasional SNAFU, for “Situation Normal: All (Fouled) Up.”
But what on Earth is a “death blossom?” Or a “fobbit,” for that matter?
The Department of Veterans Affairs has published a list detailing the vocabulary of Operation Iraqi Freedom — a list that contains such entries as “death blossom,” a term originating in the 1984 science-fiction film “The Last Starfighter.” It is used by servicemen to describe fire sprayed indiscriminately in all directions. The list also includes the terms “Mortaritaville” and “Bombaconda,” both referring to LSA Anaconda, a base near Balad, Iraq, that is frequently the target of mortar attacks.
“Soldiers use these terms because they try to make the best they can of their situation and give things kind of a humorous angle,” said Lt. Col. Charles Kohler of the Maryland National Guard.
The term “Mortaritaville,” a reference to the Jimmy Buffett song “Margaritaville,” is only one of many terms soldiers use to take the edge off an environment that is potentially frightening and often beyond their control, said Indiana University linguist Michael Adams.
“It’s making a really terrifying experience manageable by attempting to make it familiar,” Adams said.
Adams has studied slang for years, and said it can prove vital for social cohesion among soldiers.
“It’s language for them made by them to consolidate their social relationships,” he said. “In war, people’s survival depends on (these relationships).”
Military slang is versatile and can refer to anything in a soldier’s environment – equipment, locations, or people.
Maj. Liam Kingdon, who works for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Maryland in College Park, said he has heard fellow service members referred to as “fobbits.” The word is a contraction of Forward Operating Base (FOB) and “hobbit,” a creature from The Lord of the Rings known for its sedentary habits.
“It’s basically a soldier, sailor or airman who never leaves the base,” Kingdon said. “You’ve got people there who leave the base all the time to go on patrol, and you’ve got people who literally just stay on the base.”
Many service members, when asked about slang terms they remember, are lost for examples, initially.
“It’s part of my everyday language now,” said Matt Robbins, who lives in College Park and is a senior at the University of Maryland.
In 2008, Robbins deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, as a communications specialist, and said his stay there has made him acutely aware of differences in cultural customs.
“In Iraq, you don’t show the bottom of your foot to people; it’s considered impolite,” Robbins said. “I still don’t do that.”
He also recalls the fact that soldiers referred to Iraqis as “hajis” — an Arabic term describing a person who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But in this particular case, Robbins said, the use struck him as derogatory, so “I don’t use that anymore.”
The term “haji” has various derivatives, such as the designation “haji shop” for a cart or booth run by natives, where DVDs, soda and other small items are sold.
Slang terms referring to features of a base are also common, for example, a sign someone put next to an oil-filled puddle on a base in Afghanistan reading, “Rainbow Lake.”
Other terms link life in the military to items or concepts familiar from other environments — often, the environment is home, or a favorite movie. For example, improvised vehicle armor made from scrap metal is also known as “hillbilly armor” and a truck with large amounts of add-on armor may be designated a “Frankenstein.”
Kohler recalls referring to a street near his base in Kabul as “Mogadishu” because “it looked like it was from Black Hawk Down,” a 1999 book chronicling a tragic Army operation in Somalia and later adapted for the screen.
Kohler said the street reminded him of the movie because “it would be empty at first, and then, all of a sudden, all these people would come out, looking for us to give them handouts.”
The fascination with military-speak has also led to expressions of artistic creativity. Earlier this year, alternative rock band Cracker released a song called “Yalla Yalla” — Arabic for “let’s go” — built around military slang, including such terms as “Bombaconda” and “haji.”
At least some of these terms are likely to make it into everyday language, Adams said. When that will happen is unclear because “those serving have to bring the terms home and influence the use of those who haven’t served.”
But maybe the day when “couch potatoes” become “fobbits” is not so far off.