Fighting Talk! They're words we use daily... but have bloodthirsty origins
13th October 2008
Some of the most harmless sounding words and phrases - 'best man', 'baffle', 'braille' and 'mayonnaise', for example - can be traced back to the bloody battlefields of centuries ago.
A new book on the military origins of words reveals those with the most unexpected provenance...
Who do you think you are kidding? Our favourite expressions are from British Army slang
Originally rooted in the Anglo-Saxon word for a hawk, 'havoc' was also a cry raised on the battlefield calling for unlimited slaughter.
In the reign of Richard II (1377-99), the cry was outlawed under pain of death - by beheading - for those who raised or answered it.
Prussia was formerly known in England as 'Pruce' or 'Spruce', and the reputation of the Prussian military for attention to detail gave rise to the English word.
The erect posture of the officer corps also gave its name to the spruce tree, as it grew straight, tall and uniform of foliage.
In 1819, a young French artillery officer called Captain Charles Barbier de la Sierra became frustrated by the difficulty and dangers of trying to read orders at night without lighting a lantern and attracting enemy fire.
He devised a code of embossed night-writing, which failed to attract interest in military circles.
However, Louis Braille (1809-52), a teacher at the French National Institute for Blind Children, saw the potential for Barbier's system of dot-clusters to revolutionise texts for the blind, which until then had been raised letters.
Smelling the bouquet or a deadly weapon
In the 12th century, a grape was a hooked weapon that was used to find openings in joints of armour and gouge away at the flesh.
During peacetime, grapes were found to be ideal for harvesting 'wineberries', as they were then known, before the weapon's name transferred to the fruit.
CUT TO THE QUICK
Originally to be 'cut to the quick' meant that one had received a hefty sword blow that cut through the armour and into the flesh beneath.
To a medieval archer the 'upshot' was the final arrow fired in a competition, specifically in the shoot-off between two tied parties.
The umpire's decision to call for such a tie-breaker was proclaimed with the cry of 'Jeu parti!' - 'game divided', which evolved into 'jeopardy'.
During the American Civil War, the Confederaterun PoW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, had a 'dead line' some distance from the stockade wall and any prisoner seen crossing it was assumed to be trying to escape and was shot dead.
The camp was open for only 13 months, from February 1864 to March 1865, but suffered a death rate of 1,200 inmates per month.
Press coverage of the camp's commanding officer, a Swiss mercenary called Henry Witz, brought 'deadline' into general use in the late 19th century.
PAY THROUGH THE NOSE
Nose-slitting was once a common punishment for theft or non-payment of fines, and there are many references to the socalled Nose Tax extracted by ninth-century Norse raiders from the northern parts of the UK.
Those who did not pay had their noses slit up each nostril to encourage them to save up next time. It also made it very easy for returning raiders to identify previous non-payers.
Properly called Immersion Syndrome, trench foot was rife among World War I troops, caused by long periods standing around in cold and muddy water.
It was painful and debilitating, but also a sure ticket to hospital, and those keen not to be shot at would endure the pain until just before a major offensive, reporting to the medical officer at the very last minute.
After a long siege in 1756, French forces under the Duc de Richelieu ousted the British from Port Mahon on the Spanish island of Minorca.
The siege had been protracted and the blockade so successful that the Duc's chef was hard pressed to come up with a victory banquet.
But he did the best he could and dressed the salad with a new sauce, which he christened 'Mahonaise' after the port.
Happiest day of your life or a traumatic affair
Back in the days when brides were kidnapped and forced into marriage, the groom needed the best swordsman around to guard his back as he made off with his bride.
Today's best men appear to have got off lightly with a speech.
Originally coined by World War I German troops to describe British troops whom they preferred to keep at a distance.
The 51st Highlanders and the Black Watch both claim to be the Poison Dwarves.
However, the Germans were actually referring to the diminutive yet dangerous Gurkhas.
Before 'foggy' had any meteorological applications, the term was used for anything or anyone bloated, flaccid or unhealthy.
In British Army slang of the mid-18th century a 'foggy' or a 'fogey' was an invalid soldier or one so old that he was restricted to garrison duties.
American military slang from the late Sixties, which originally applied to a missile whose guidance system had malfunctioned - leaving the projectile in free flight and fall, at the mercy of the laws of ballistics.
The term shifted to mean those acting irrationally, who suddenly flew into a rage.
Derives from 'bast' or 'bat', alternative names for the kind of pack-saddle used in the baggagetrains that followed an army on the move.
This saddle opened out into a crude bed for nights on the trail.
A child conceived on a 'bast', and thus unlikely to be the issue of a sanctified union, was called a 'batard' in French and in English a 'bastard'.
TAKE (SOMEONE) DOWN A PEG OR TWO
The height at which a warship's identifying flags flew was dictated by a series of pegs at the foot of the mast, and maritime etiquette demanded a junior ship 'dip' her colours in the presence of, say, an admiral's ship.
The expression was commonly employed metaphorically by the late 1500s.
Based on the Greek 'sarkasmos' or 'flesh-tearing', this was first used on the ancient battlefields to describe a demented and withering attack, involving much hacking and slashing at the flesh of the other party.
By the late 16th century, the term was being used in English to describe a withering verbal attack.
The main objective of any besieging force attacking a castle or walled city was to breach the walls, but there was often a moat in place to make it impossible to place mines against the wall.
So attackers had to start their tunnels some way distant from the walls and burrow under the foundations to try to weaken or breach the walls from below.
Baffling behaviour is founded from a knight hung upside down
Has its roots in the French baffler and the Italian beffare, meaning 'mockery'.
It appeared in English in the 16th century to describe the public humiliation of a knight, who was hung upside-down for the peasantry to ill-treat.
After being battered, swung and mocked the victim was disoriented when set down.
Based on the German 'rand', meaning 'rim', 'edge' or 'outer limit', 16th-century English created 'random' to describe a horse or man running at the outer limit of capability (i.e. as fast as possible), or a gun firing at its maximum elevation to achieve the outer limit of its achievable range.
It was the artillery usage which gave rise to the modern meaning, since all accuracy was sacrificed in the interest of range and the shot fell haphazardly.
- FIGHTING TALK: The Military Origins of Everyday Words And Phrases, by Graeme Donald. Published by Osprey £9.99. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.