15 Common Phrases Civilians Stole From the US Military




The military is full of interesting lingo. The Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army all have their own unique phrases. Some of these are so good, the civilian world just can’t resist picking them up when it hears them. Here are 15 phrases that jumped from the military ranks to the civilian sphere.

1. “Balls to the walls” (also, “Going balls out”)


Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Shenk

Meaning: To go as fast as one possibly can.

From military aviation where pilots would need to get their aircraft flying as fast as possible. Their control levers had balls on the end. Pushing the accelerator all the way out (“balls out”), would put the ball of the lever against the firewall in the cockpit (“balls to the wall”). When a pilot really needed to zoom away, they’d also push the control stick all the way forward, sending it into a dive. Obviously, this would put the ball of the control stick all the way out from the pilot and against the firewall.

2. “Bite the bullet”

Meaning: To endure pain or discomfort without crying out

Fighters on both sides of the American Civil War used the term “bite the bullet,” but it appears they may have stolen it from the British. British Army Capt. Francis Grose published the book, “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” in 1811 and used “chew the bullet” to explain how proud soldiers stayed silent while being whipped.

3. “Boots on the ground”

Meaning: Ground troops engaged in an operation

Credited to Army Gen. Volney Warner, “boots on the ground” is used to mean troops in a combat area or potential combat area. After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term saw wide use and has ceased to refer exclusively to military operations. It can now be used to refer to any persons sent out to walk the ground in an area. It’s been employed in reference to police officers as well as political canvassers.

4. “Bought the farm”


Photo: U.S. Navy

Meaning: To die

Thought to date back to 1950s jet pilots, the phrase quickly spread to civilian circles. There is no clear agreement on exactly how the phrase came about. It could be from war widows being able to pay off the family farm with life insurance payments, or farmers paying off their farms with the damage payout they’d receive when a pilot crashed on their land, or the pilots who wanted to buy a farm after they retired being said to “buy the farm early” when they died.

5. “Caught a lot of flak”

Meaning: To be criticized, especially harshly

Flak is actually an acronym for German air defense cannons. The Germans called the guns Fliegerabwehrkanonen. Flieger means flyer, abwehr means defense, and kanonen means cannon. Airmen in World War II would have to fly through dangerous clouds of shrapnel created by flak. The phrase progressed in meaning until it became equated with abusive criticism.


Meaning: Everything about the current situation sucks

All three words are acronyms. FUBAR stands for “F*cked up beyond all recognition,” SNAFU is “Situation normal, all f*cked up,” and TARFU is “Things are really f*cked up.” FUBAR and SNAFU have made it into the civilian lexicon, though the F-word in each is often changed to “fouled” to keep from offending listeners. The Army actually used SNAFU for the name of a cartoon character in World War II propaganda and instructional videos. Pvt. Snafu and his brothers Tarfu and Fubar were voiced by Mel Blanc of Bugs Bunny and Porky the Pig fame.

7. Geronimo


Photo: US Army Institute of Heraldry

Usage: Yelled when jumping off of something

“Geronimo” is yelled by jumpers leaping from a great height, but it has military origins. Paratroopers with the original test platoon at Fort Benning, Georgia yelled the name of the famous Native American chief on their first mass jump. The exclamation became part of airborne culture and the battalion adopted it as their motto.

8. “Got your six”

Meaning: Watching your back

Military members commonly describe direction using the hours of a clock. Whichever direction the vehicle, unit, or individual is moving is the 12 o’clock position, so the six o’clock position is to the rear. “Got your six” and the related “watch your six” come from service members telling each other that their rear is covered or that they need to watch out for an enemy attacking from behind.

9. “In the trenches”


Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ernest Brooks

Meaning: Stuck in a drawn out, tough fight.

Troops defending a position will dig trenches to use as cover during an enemy attack, reducing the chance they’ll be injured by shrapnel or enemy rounds. In World War I, most of the war occurred along a series of trenches that would flip ownership as one army attacked another. So, someone engaged in fierce fighting, even metaphorical fighting, is “in the trenches.”

10. “No man’s land”

Meaning: Dangerous ground or a topic that it is dangerous to discuss

“No man’s land” was widely used by soldiers to describe the area between opposing armies in their trenches in World War I. It was then morphed to describe any area that it was dangerous to stray into or even topics of conversation that could anger another speaker. However, this is one case where civilians borrowed a military phrase that the military had stolen from civilians. “No man’s land” was popularized in the trenches of the Great War, but it dates back to the 14th century England when it was used on maps to denote a burial ground.

11. “Nuclear option”


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meaning: A choice to destroy everything rather than give in on a debate or contest

Used most publicly while discussing fillibusters in the Senate, the nuclear option has its roots in — what else — nuclear warfare. In the Cold War, military leaders would give the commander-in-chief options for the deployment and use of nuclear weapons from nuclear artillery to thermonuclear bombs. In the era of brinksmanship, use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets or the U.S. would likely have ended in widespread destruction across both nations.

12. “On the double”

Meaning: Quickly, as fast as possible

Anyone who has run in a military formation will recognize the background of “on the double.” “Quick time” is the standard marching pace for troops, and “double time” is twice that pace, meaning the service member is running. Doing something “on the double” is moving at twice the normal speed while completing the task.

13. “On the frontlines”

Meaning: In the thick of a fight, argument, or movement

Like nuclear option, this one is pretty apparent. The front line of a military force is made up of the military units closest to a potential or current fight. Troops on the frontline spend most days defending against or attacking enemy forces. People who are “on the frontlines” of other struggles like political movements or court trials are fighting against the other side every day. This is similar in usage and origin to “in the trenches” above.


14. “Roger that”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meaning: Yes

This one is pretty common knowledge, though not all civilians may know why the military says, “Roger that,” rather than “yes.” Under the old NATO phonetic alphabet, the letter R was pronounced, “Roger” on the radio. Radio operators would say, “Roger,” to mean that a message had been properly received. The meaning evolved until “roger” meant “yes.” Today, the NATO phonetic alphabet says, “Romeo,” in place of R, but “roger” is still used to mean a message was received.

15. “Screw the pooch”

Meaning: To bungle something badly

“Screw the pooch” was originally an even racier phrase, f*ck the dog. It meant to loaf around or procrastinate. However, by 1962 it was also being used to mean that a person had bungled something. Now, it is more commonly used with the latter definition.


classedit2 David Nye – Staff Writer at We Are The Mighty

David is a former Fort Bragg paratrooper who deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team.


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  • tolsen

    the original source of the phrase “balls to the wall” is from the governor on 19th century steam engines where brass weighted balls on levers would swing out horizontally when the governor was set to run the steam engine at maximum speed…… this usage of the phrase describing a steam engine governor “running balls to the wall” predates military aviators borrowing the phrase 80 years later

    • shipfixr

      Correct! You nailed that one.

  • Sasquatch

    balls out
    Originally referred to the governor on old steam engines that had two balls that rotated across one another that would control speed depending on how fast they spun. Balls out meant going full speed or power.
    That old steam tractor was going balls out.

  • Jacques.Daspy

    To “buy the farm” referred to the price that the US Gov. paid the farmer after one of their aircraft had crashed and contaminated his farm with fuel, aircraft parts, and the general inconvenience of the govt. cleaning up a mess.

    • shipfixr

      I really don’t think that’s correct……since the phrase originated long before there were aircraft.



      • chas2k

        Bought the farm was when old soldiers said they were taking up farming when they left the military. It might even date back to Roman times when war weary soldiers would look to an easy and quiet life on the farm.

      • Rcl

        The farm is the little plot of land they bury you in after you die. You buy it by getting killed.

    • William Callen

      Buy the farm is RAF slang for dying. It refers to the size of the plots one was buried in.

    • Actionjac

      In wwll it came about when the death benefit if $10,000 literally bought the family’s mortgages.

  • JJMurray

    And of course the one they have used to the point of absurdity without actually meaning it when they say it –
    “Not on MY watch!”

  • Curt Conway

    And I didn’t even see “Stand Up” or “Stand Down”.

  • Leon Suchorski

    Let’s 86 the jaw-jacking, and get the show on the road. We are forever hearing the phrase that someone or something is 86ed in our television shows. This means to be thrown out, or just be out. Article 86 of the UCMJ refers to someone being AWOL.

    • Jimmy C

      I have heard that he term 86 ‘d was used to indicate a “kill” by an F-86 Sabre. As in “the Mig was eighty-sixed” …

  • Will

    “Roger” dates back to the invention of radio, well before the existence of NATO, according to Wiki. Pretty sure there’s any number of old movies where “Roger” is used.

    • Semper Fidelis

      Roger Dat Will!



      • Bill

        Apparently the film industry, lacking a proper military/ex-military consultant introduced “that” as an appendage to “roger” sometime in the 70’s. Some military services began using “roger that”, which is still incorrect. “Roger” means “I heard and understood your last transmission”. It does not imply that “I” will act on that information.

  • CSM Retired

    one of my favorite abrevations is CSMO It meant Close Station March Order or move out exercise or event was concluded and it was time to to continue to another location.

  • Guest

    The mil in the US is made up of people who were once civilians and will likely be civilians again, so let’s stop claiming anyone “stole” language from anyone else.

    • jhamlet74

      Be that as it may, there is still a language that the military uses that civilians do not. That is the point of this whole thing….

  • adelazero

    What was number 4?

    • Coastie Mom

      How many people scrolled up to see if there was a number 4? LOL

  • Dayve

    I’m finding Sierra Hotel making it into the civilian jargon as well lately.



  • Larry Carlson

    I like CSMO. When we asked what was that we were told: “Cut the shit and move out.”

    • Arthur

      It really means, Close Station, March Order.

  • sgt jessee

    I like to use the term…turn to…which I used in military, 20 years, which means to, turn to…the work that you’re supposed to be doing and mind your own business. Hand communication, hold up 2 fingers and rotate the hand…turn to…

    • Coastie Mom

      It was funny, when my son was at MEPS getting ready to ship out, they had the recruits in a back room somewhere. We were waiting to watch him swear in. He comes out of the room and without a word does the “turn 2” motion at me. I said “come on, we have to move.” His girlfriend at the time had no clue what he was doing. I just laughed. His father used to do that all the time when he wanted us to step it up.

  • LCpl Treyson

    They forgot to list BOHICA (bend over, here it comes again) in # 6.

    I still say gangway to get people to move and refer to Doctors notes as chits.

    • Sgt. Vaughan

      Thank you, I’ve wondered what BOHICA was.

  • Paul Glasser

    You missed CAN DO motto of the Navy Seabees

  • Dennis Reilly

    I find it funny when civilians who have never been in the military try to imitate military jargon and pronounce “ASAP” as “Aay, Ess, Aay, Pee.” If you’re really in a hurry and want to save time, say it properly as an acronym: “Aay-sapp!” And, apparently, not enough of them are used to getting up at “O-Dark-Thirty” for that phrase to have caught on.

    • Coastie Mom

      We get up at O’Dark Thirty everyday. My husband goes to work for a 0500 shift. We are up and at it by 0330, Monday thru Friday. I’ve often said “We have to get to bed, O’Dark Thirty comes fast.”

    • James Walters

      Found it amusing when my civilian boss sent word for me to report to him “ASAP” – about a half-hour later, when I showed up, he asked me if I didn’t understand that ASAP meant “right now” – after six years American Army and three years NATO service, I had an understanding of it and explained that to him; from then on when he needed me instantly, he said so.

  • Joseph, D L

    Barracks Lawyer-Knew all the regulations and laws.

  • JT

    By the way, there are 5 armed US military services, you forget the US Coast Guard.

    • Jay

      They don’t eve work hard.

  • Tom McFadden

    I know for a fact by the farm dates back to at least the Civil War. Soldiers on both sides would reenlist just one more time to save money to go back home and buy the farm. So when a soldier was killed in combat, his comrades would say he bought the farm.

  • singletrackdog

    “That’s above my pay grade,”
    “You’re out of line,”

    …seem to be of military origin.

  • dogman

    Not sure it is accurate to say certain terms used in the military were “stolen” by civilians, so much as an on-going transfer of phrases back and forth as civilians go into the military and as servicemembers return to civilian life. SNAFU and ASAP may be examples. I’d learned both as a kid, well before I went in the Army. They therefore didn’t strike me as peculiarly military terms when I heard them used in the military. And they were in wide use everywhere I went in the course of my civilian career. There are some, like “4th point of contact” that hardly get used beyond airborne units. Or “Sky Pilot”.

  • weweedman

    I always heard that “bought the farm” meant that 6×6 plot every servicemember is entitled to if one dies in combat…a gravesite.

    • Lacy

      I used the term, “sell the farm paw, I just hit 17 with a 5. (A blackjack term meaning you busted with the number 22….21 was a winning hand….

    • norwood hux

      that what i thought it meant too

  • JGinSC

    What happened to ‘FIGMO?’

    • doolish


    • Coastie Mom

      My son is in FIGMO mode right now. He departs his unit July 7th.

  • Chaz

    “Balls to the Wall” pre-dates the steam engine and the airplane; it originally referred to moving cannon “balls” “to the wall” as quickly as possible during an attack. Speed was implied.

  • Rasputin

    I always laughed when the old movies would say “ROGER, WILCO, OVER AND OUT”.

    • Jay

      Except that was correct on single band radio. Roger (received), Wilco (will comply), Over (end line), Out (End transmission)

      • jj1013

        Except that “Wilco” implies “Roger” and when using “Out” the use of “Over” is redundant. You can’t comply to something you haven’t received, so the response that you will comply is sufficient. If you are “over” you are turning the channel over to the other person, if you are “out” you are ending transmission, so there is no use for “over.” The correct usage would be “Wilco, out.”

  • WJN

    “Roger that” does not mean “yes”. It means I understood your transmission. It is still used in aviation today

  • Abby potter

    My dad would say chow down for

    all hands on deck ,the wall was a bulkhead, the bathroom was a head

  • Gunny

    And the Civs think Shake n Bake is what you us to fix chicken in the oven!

  • R. DeVore

    “Bought The Farm” originated in WWII until Jan 1957 When the Military was put under Social Security.
    The term meant that at the military member’s death, the family received a $10,000 death benefit from the government, or enough to pay off the farm (in those days). In Jan 1957, the Military took away
    the free insurance and replaced it with Survivor’s Benefit. A Military member had to furnish his own
    life insurance unless he had dependents.

  • Sea Dog

    What is even more appalling is the top-level brass, at the Pentagon, using corporate doublespeak. Their jargon makes them appear to be more closely aligned with their military supplier cronies than their warrior subordinates.

  • Mike

    Perhaps these phrases (and others) are being used more often in civilian life due to our military personnel integrating back into civilian life after their tenure in our armed forces. It’s hard to drop jargon after using it for many years.

  • Danielle

    I’m a spouse(Army) building a health &wellness program for military spouses (from all branches) and wanted to call it ‘got your 6’ but it’s now being used for a full blown mental health initiative. Any suggestions on jargon that would be recognized AND inspiring/empowering/impactful? Seems the media world is coining all the good phrases :)

  • Johnny Boy

    “No mans land” was an area which contained mines separating armies during WWI. This term was also used by my prison where I worked as a Correctional Officer. It was the area between the perimeter fences. The gun tower had orders to shoot to kill before you made it over the first fence. If you made it over the first fence.The electrified fence was the middle fence and it would fry you. It was an area where no man could survive without being killed. “No mans land”.

  • Johnnyboy

    Boot camp is one term I hear a lot. Java, regular Joe, spit and polish. I’m hearing “Going commando” on TV now. G.I’s brought back foreign terms also “Out in the boondocks” (Filipino for mountain). Honcho (Japanese for boss), Chow (Chinese for eating/food), Gung Ho (Chinese for dedicated, team work). He ran “Amok” (Filipino for going crazy/wild).

    • jhamlet74

      Um… going commando just means that you’re not wearing underwear. That’s what civilians recognize it as, anyway….

  • James

    The phrase “Mind your p’s and q’s” also has a military origin. This phrase originally meant for sailors to watch how many pints and quarts they drank between paydays. This phrase originated during the colonial days when sailors got paid on a sporadic basis. When the sailors got paid, they had to settle their bar debts, paying for each pint and quart of alcohol they drank. When a sailor’s bar tab was getting high, the bartender would tell the sailor to mind his p’s and q’s, which meant watch how much alcohol the person drank.

  • Tim

    Another old one that went away: WETSU. In Basic, we were told it was Korean for “Let’s work as a team” and we were incessantly ordered to yell it as loud as we could. We didn’t find out until much later that it
    stood for We Eat This Sh** Up.

  • Sp4 Ft.Riley

    Does anyone know the Navy fighter aircraft that are shown in the photo.?
    I know one is the F-4 Phantom but I don’t know the others.

    • Ted

      Looks like a Douglas convair
      Douglas skyraider
      and of course the F-4
      I believe all were made my the Douglas Corp which emerged into McDonnel-Douglas and eventually to Boeing

  • Ted

    I did not see ASAP “As soon as possible”