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10 Common Words and Phrases You Didn’t Know Had Military Origins

The English language contains some fascinating, odd and funny words and phrases.

Did you know that many of the things we say in everyday parlance have a military origin? Here's a list of some common things we say that found their beginnings in the armed forces.

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine"

The telegraph was invented in the mid-19th century by Samuel Morse, and by 1861, telegraph wires stretched from coast to coast. The wires were described as grapevines, because of the way they hung from telegraph poles. During the Civil War, news was transmitted via telegraph.

There's some debate about if the news that the soldiers received through the telegraph was spurious or genuine, but one thing is certain — information that was heard via the telegraph was "heard through the grapevine." Today, when news passes through "the grapevine," we often refer to rumors and hearsay.

"Face the Music"

There are times when we just have to own up to our mistakes and "face the music." One origin of this phrase stems from the disgraceful dismissal of a military officer. The shamed soldier, after he was relieved of his duties, had to make his final march accompanied by the drum cadence of his old unit — a process referred to as "drumming out."

"Benedict Arnold"

"Don't talk to me you Benedict Arnold! You, you Judas Priest," exclaimed Alfalfa in the film The Little Rascals after his friend Spanky betrayed him.

Arnold's name has long been synonymous with traitor ever since he attempted to hand over West Point to the British during the American Revolutionary War. Norway's Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling, went down in infamy when he helped the Nazis gain control of the Scandinavian country.


According to Lossing's History of the Civil War (1868), there was a line at the prison camp which was about 17 feet away from the stockade wall that no POW could cross, or else he would be presumed an escapee and shot — this line was the "deadline." According to Graeme Donald's "Sticklers, Sideburns & Bikinis," the term came into general usage from the press coverage of the trial of Andersonville Prison's commanding officer Henry Wirz.

"Murphy's Law"

"If anything can go wrong, it will." That's an adage that has been in use in the United States since the mid-20th century. This phrase was coined 401 in 1948 at Edwards Air Force Base and named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981.

The story goes that Murphy's assistant was installing gauges to measure the G-forces a test-dummy would receive on a rocket-sled blasting forward on a 1.9-mile track. When the instruments read zero after the test-run, Murphy berated his assistant saying, "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."


Because the 500-pound general purpose bombs of the British were having little effect on German targets, the massive 4,000 pound "blockbuster" bomb was developed. The idea was that it was large enough to destroy an entire city block. After the war, the term was popularized to denote a movie or book that was a giant success.

"Hot Shot"

There are at least two origins for the term "hot shot" — a particularly important person or one with exceptional skill. One, mentioned in "Sticklers, Sideburns & Bikinis," refers to the use of heated cannonballs — the hot shot — by an artillery battery or ship to set fire to the enemy. The men loading the cannons needed a certain amount of skill in doing so, so that they did not ignite their own powder and blow themselves up. Another use refers to a "hot shot" as someone who shoots recklessly. American usage did not appear until the early 20th century.

"Slush Fund" & "Skimming off the Top"

These terms have their origins in the British Navy. According to Roy Adkins, author of "Nelson's Trafalgar," the ship's cook would sell the slush — the salty fat that he "skimmed off the top" from the boiling pot of meat — to soap makers when in port. The money collected would be put into the "slush fund" and used for amenities such as rum and finer foods for the crew. Nowadays, the term "slush fund" refers to any monies that are fraudulently set aside.

"Run Amok"

Southeast Asia is the source of the term "run amok." It is synonymous with "go crazy," but it originated in Malaysia with a warrior class called the Amuco. The Amuco were employed in local power struggles and it was the belief that fallen fighters were favored by the gods, whereas those who lost a battle and survived were punished with dishonor and death. Since the Amuco had nothing to lose their attacks were maniacal and frenzied.

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