For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.
MIF #3 – Lingo
Prior to DTG 170800ZJUN12, I wanted to give 30-50 PAX a good hack on how to establish comms, but that became OBE so we CANXed that. So instead, let me give you a nug’s up; we’re going to ROLEX and slip to the right just a bit so we can synch up the machine of many moving parts, tally on the correct requirements and pickle on time. Otherwise you’re going to go into vapor lock and start shouting bogey dope, and this thing is going to turn into a Charlie Foxtrot real quick. Lock it up and keep your cranium on a swivel for the next twenty mikes – how copy?
Everything in the above paragraph makes complete and total sense to someone in the military, though I’m sure they’d be rolling their eyes by the middle of it. We don’t typically lay it on quite that thick, but on occasion you can’t make out what we’re saying any better than if we’d been speaking Chinese.
Communication is the key to combat, and clarity is the key to communications. When bullets are flying, you also need to be FAST. So the modern military has established a host of ways to shorten complicated concepts and condense them into single words or phrases that can convey what we’re trying to say. As a result, we get an added bonus: nobody outside knows what the hell we’re talking about.
That’s great for warfighting, but not so great for fiction writing. My goal here is to give you a good insight on how we talk and how to put elements of it into your story. If there’s one thing you should remember, though, it’s this: You need to achieve a balance between realism and accessibility. If you start writing things like the first paragraph of this article, you’ll lose just about everyone.
Before I start doling out advice, however, just remember that this is very specific to a modern, technologically advanced military. You will have to take these principles and extrapolate in order to apply them to other worlds, times, and cultures. The underlying principle of extrapolation is that of development; this language came from somewhere, so your military lingo should come from somewhere as well. Combat terminology eventually bleeds into normal, day-to-day conversation. Soldiers in your fantasy setting are going to frame their conversations with their experience, like an advanced form of an accent; some say “pop” instead of “soda”. Navy guys call the bathroom the “head”, call going to sleep “racking out”, and call the Air Force when they actually need to get things done*.
That being said, here are my THREE POINTS to help you learn and utilize the lingo. Each of them has a translation table at the end, which is tremendously exciting because I get to build a table without a hammer.
1.) Brevity/Simplicity. If your characters are engaging in long philosophical conversations in the middle of a heated firefight, you’ve watched the Matrix too many times. You don’t have time to discuss the finer points of strategy. You have time to swear, point, and shoot, and you’re going to let your training (if you have any) take over. From a stylistic standpoint, this is going to help you build and maintain tension in your action sequences, an added benefit of making your military talk sound real.
In the air force we have a whole set of training goals aimed at achieving memorization of procedures – we call it “bold face”, because that’s how it appears in the manuals. Let me give you an example.
CIVILIAN: First you pick the peanuts and you peel them, you peel them. Then you take the peanuts and you crush them, you crush them. Then you take the butter and you spread it, you spread it.
MILITARY: Harvest nut. Remove shell. Crush. Apply paste. (this would probably be reduced to an acronym: HRCA and pronounced “hurka” in common speech – I am not joking. Next time you are making a peanut butter sandwich, advise your significant other that you are engaging in “hurka” and see what happens).
Specialists are also going to use terms specific to what they do. If an engineer says “splash”, he’s probably talking about something impacting a fluid. If a fighter pilot says “splash”, it means he just successfully employed ordnance on a target. If you have mages, your military force might classify them using short terms. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series classifies his Allomancers into catchy phrases that describe what they do: Smokers, Soothers, and Seekers. While not precisely military, it definitely helps the feel and establishes a lingo that characterizes his magic system.
Below are some other examples of how you might take a piece of communication and shorten it to make it sound more “military”. Some of these I’ve completely made up to support the speculative fiction author, others we actually use. Note the heavy use of acronyms – this is a way to really, REALLY shorten very complicated terms. Acronyms don’t work as well in a fantasy setting (it doesn’t work in Elvish), but they’re wonderful for Sci-Fi.
|I understand what you have said and will do what you ask.||Roger, wilco (will comply).|
|I did not understand what you just said.||Did not copy.|
|Six thousand men armed with maces.||Three divisions of bangers.|
|A mage has cast a spell on our city that caused everyone to go to sleep.||Magic slumber party.|
|Aircraft that we don’t have a lot of, but are extremely important to what we do.||HVAA (pronounced HAVE-a, stands for High Value Air Asset)|
|A car that has been rigged with homemade explosives and will likely be driven straight into something to cause damage.||VBIED (pronounced VEE-bid, stands for vehicle borne improvised explosive device)|
|A device that produces two beams whose focal point has the ability to disrupt the bonds between atoms in molecules and destroy them.||Little Doctor (from Ender’s Game, shortened to Molecular Disruption Device, then shortened to MD Device, then shortened to “little Doctor” because of the implications of the abbreviation MD)|
If you want some real insight into how to make complicated concepts brief, check out the US Army’s Field Manual FM1-02.1 “Brevity Terms”. Yes, we have a manual on how to do this.
2.) Fit. Use language that fits the cultural scheme and the character using it. By this I don’t mean slang. What I’m talking about here is more akin to jargon than official terms, but you have to take into account who is speaking, what they’re saying, and who their audience is. A top-ranking general isn’t going to go to a press conference and use the phrase “blow shit up”. A platoon sergeant probably wouldn’t use the phrase “achieve synergistic battlefield effects” when giving a pep talk to his soldiers. Swap the two phrases, and you have a better idea.
As I mentioned in the previous point, “fit” can apply to the type of specialist as well. Artillerymen are going to use different terms from infantrymen, submariners are going to use different terms from regular sailors. Many times this prevents us from understanding each other. I said communication was important; I never said we had it perfect.
Below is a table that describes the difference between levels of command – a grunt versus a general. Remember that these two individuals have different audiences as well as different specialties.
|Effects-based operations||Get the job done|
|Show of force||Scare the shit out of them|
|Logistical problems||Where is my stuff?|
|Time-phased approach||We’re going to have to wait a while.|
|I don’t agree with that||Yes, sir|
See how one tends to be professional, even a little political, while the other is more get-to-the-point? That’s the way we communicate – grunts aren’t as lingo-centric because often they haven’t been immersed in the environment long enough to assimilate. You can mix and match these, of course; you will find low-ranking soldiers that talk like generals, and generals (like Patton) who talk like grunts. Establishing one or the other will not only help you create a realistic environment; it will help you build character profiles as well. The way someone speaks is often indicative of how they will go about solving problems.
I, for example, am not known for being very political.
3.) Kizzle Kazzle. The term comes from a friend of mine who coined it to describe all the ridiculous ways we say things that should otherwise be very simple. In reality, it describes a specific thing in the sport of curling, but the phrase was so strange (and curling so obscure) that she applied it to military speak.
You can use what I’m about to describe here to develop strange speech patterns and turns of phrase for your own military.
I used several kizzle kazzles in the opening paragraph of this article. For some reason, we can’t be bothered to say something is going to happen later – we say “slip to the right”. These expressions violate the principles of brevity and, sometimes, clarity, and can be more likened to jargon than anything else. We don’t typically use these sorts of terms in a combat environment because of that reason – they can be confusing and lengthy.
This isn’t just about talking in a confusing way. Most of these examples have a sort of etymology behind them that stems from something we’ve done at one time or another, or something one of our leaders said that caught on. The military, US or Mordor, is going to create its own subset of language, much like areas of the country. Look at some of Suann Sanche’s dialog in the Wheel of Time series. What does she always compare things to? Fish! Because she grew up in a city whose population was totally immersed in the fishing culture. The military is the same way, and over time these phrases have lost their original context and morphed into something that you have to live to understand.
In the air force, somewhere along the lines we developed call signs, nicknames that stem from the way we need to communicate with each other in the cockpit. At first it was just for fighter pilots, then it branched out to include other pilots and crew. The military is pretty keen on nicknames – yours can be, too.
I have a callsign, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Instead, let’s move on to my translation table.
|Slip to the right||It’s going to occur later than we thought|
|In the weeds||This is too much detail for our context of conversation (comes from the brevity term “weeds” that signifies an aircraft is flying very low)|
|Nugwork||Requires thinking (comes from noggin [head], went to nuggin, shortened to nug, combined with work)|
|Vapor lock||To seize up under pressure (comes from a mechanical term that causes engines to malfunction)|
|As fragged||This will occur as we planned (I have no idea where this comes from)|
|Cleared hot||You are authorized to do said task (comes from how we say it’s okay to drop a bomb)|
|Charlie Foxtrot||This situation has become very complex.**|
You can create these for your military if you have a good enough back story. Try coming up with some strange terms to describe some things, then writing out the history behind the term. You might find that it leads to a richer development of your military’s history. Remember that the military is just another subset of society; its speech is going to be just as unique and idiosyncratic as its lifestyle.
Case Study: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
While all of OSC’s books in the Ender series are outstanding, the first one in particular is the one that includes the most military terminology. I could pick out a dozen books that are based on real life militaries, but since my own genre revolves around speculative fiction, I want to keep my examples in those same genres.
I’ve already talked about the Little Doctor, which in and of itself was a brilliant use of military-type lingo. Another great example is the term “Buggers”, the catchy word used to describe the antlike enemy against which the galaxy and Ender are struggling. A military organization would never consistently refer to the enemy as “giant insect-like creatures from such and such galaxy”. We didn’t call them “members of the Soviet Union” – we called them Reds. Or Commies. Whatever. Viet Minh or Viet Cong got reduced to Charlie. It’s the way of the world that we fight wars by first truncating the name of our enemies, like the first sword stroke in a duel.
The patterns of speech fit a modern military as well. During one of the dialog sequences that often begin chapters, one of the characters uses the phrase “defeated the effectiveness of our training method”. That’s a very military way to say “screwed this up.” You can tell immediately that the men that are talking are of higher rank, from point #2 above. Lo and behold, it’s a conversation with a Colonel.
Card uses proper military time – the 24 hour clock – proper military acronyms, and proper military ranks. He did his research beforehand, and it shows that he went above the big things of understanding basic military terminology and advanced to understanding how we speak (and why we speak that way).
Creating lingo for your military is a lot of fun, and very effective in creating a realistic world if you do it right. Just don’t go overboard. Otherwise, your reader will go into vapor lock and things will go SNAFU quicker than an off-tether AMRAAM. Copy?
Thanks for reading,
*You may notice I’m consistently jibing at the services. We do this a lot, and it’s never meant to insinuate that the Navy can’t do their jobs. We’re all part of one big family, and, like any family, we share a love-hate relationship.
** For the purpose of eliminating vulgarity, I’ve been deliberately imprecise in my definition of this term.