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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Words of War, Part 1

The words of war have infiltrated modern language; many phrases we use today have their origins in the terms once familiar only to those who were involved in military maneuvers or the use of weaponry. This article, the first in a series of three, examines this phenomenon.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1936 (approx.)
Labels: Military Record 
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Most genealogists are well aware that one or more of their ancestors probably was involved in some sort of warfare. Whether the fighting took place in America or somewhere overseas, in the 18th Century or the 20th Century, or maybe even in the Middle Ages, it is a surefire bet that some forebear found himself on the battle front. While we know that we inherited various characteristics and genetic traits from our multi-great-grandparents, we also inherited some vocabulary from those who fought for causes they believed in. Here we will examine some of the Words of War that have survived, though somewhat altered, to the present day.

When a commanding officer wants his men to be prepared to fight, he may yell, "to arms!" or, in Italian, "all' arme!" From this we get the word "alarm," which has grown to mean "warning" (Hendrickson, p. 13). It was a call that has become synonymous with impending danger (Funk, Thereby Hangs a Tale, pp. 8-9). Of course, calling a device used to wake us up in the morning an "alarm clock" would imply that it is a "warning clock" or "'here comes danger' clock," which may make sense to the person for whom its ring evokes the same emotion as the scream, "alarm": a feeling of dread (Funk, Word Origins, pp. 221-222). For some, facing the new day can be alarming.

It is hoped that the fighting unit, like any group that is engaged in a joint activity, will "click" (i.e., succeed or work well in consort). This is also the expectation of the firearm: that the firing pin will successfully eject the bullet. And, if it is a more modern weapon, it will "click (or fire) on all cylinders" (Holt, p. 56). However, this latter phrase more likely refers to the cylinders in the automobile internal combustion engine: if one is not firing, the vehicle runs poorly (Glazier, p. 207), as opposed to the (single) cylinder of a gun. Continuing with the concept of a military unit working together to fight a common enemy, it is hoped that each person will "stick to his/her guns" and not desert fellow soldiers. Today we use that term to mean people who hold steadfast to their principles or objectives (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, p. 83).

Of course, the military is no stranger to those who fail in this and those are quickly labeled "cowards." This label comes from those who did not go off to fight. Early men of Gaul were expected to fight for their community and were enlisted in the military. The few males left at home had two roles: the older, to maintain the community with their labor; the younger, to maintain the herds and do the milking of the cows. These couards ("cow wards") were usually under the age of 10 and were not in a position to defend themselves (or anyone else). Whether approached by a wild beast or a weapon-wielding stranger, these young boys would usually flee to safety. Though the word changed to "coward," and traveled to England, the behavior was still that of fleeing at the sight or indication of danger (Garrison, p. 278).

The belief that the liver of a coward is pale and bloodless has led to the term "lily livered." In Both Greek and Roman armies, a pre-battle, religious ceremony, called Auspices, was held. During this rite, an animal was offered as a sacrifice. If the creature's liver was healthy and red, it was seen as a good omen for the upcoming battle; if it was pale, it was seen as an indication of defeat or severe hardship during the upcoming confrontation. While today we view the heart as the seat of emotion, in ancient times the liver was perceived as the source of one's behavior and affections. A weak or cowardly man reflected poor health in that organ, which was believed to be white, or lily-colored. Allegedly, women abhorred such men (Mordock & Korach, p. 14). In a quick aside, this ritual of the Auspices leads to today's phrase: "under the auspices of," meaning that an upcoming action is "under the benevolent protection and patronage of" whomever we name (e.g., "under the auspices of their parents, the children were raised to mind their manners"). Of course, the original Auspices could have a negative outcome, but our usage today seems to have ignored that possibility (Funk, Thereby Hangs a Tale, pp. 21-22).

Let us continue with the discussion of cowards: frequently, such soldiers would be dishonorably discharged. In the 18th Century, when this occurred, it was the procedure to strip him of his buttons and sword then see to it that he was removed from the company. This was done to the accompaniment of drum and bugle, while his former comrades contemptuously watched him depart (Globe Digests, p. 75). This is the origin of the term "face the music," which is not exactly literal in this case, since the departing soldier is actually walking away from the music. Another suggestion for the term's origin, still military in nature, is that wars were fought with a band marching ahead, leading towards the battlefront. When the drummer rapped out the command for "forward, march," the soldiers knew to fall in line, facing the music as they proceeded (Mordock & Korach, pp. 40-41; Funk, Hog on Ice, pp. 192-193). Today we use the term to mean, "To accept the consequences for one's (negative) actions." Its first appearance in print was about 1850 (Hendrickson, p. 242), putting some doubt on the first suggested usage. On the other hand, since the second suggested origin implies that "facing the music" is a forward moving, positive action, stating that that event gave rise to today's negative phrase may cause a person to question it. Of course, heading into battle certainly has its negative component: that may be the last music the soldier ever hears. Whichever is the actual genesis of the phrase, it seems relatively certain that it is unrelated to a performer facing the music of the orchestra, as might first come to mind.

Those soldiers marching into battle were likely not as courageous as they might have appeared. It is not unusual for someone who is terrified of the enemy in the field to have cold feet (reticence to proceed). One source states that the original meaning of the phrase "cold feet" is "being without money," eventually gravitating to "losing one's nerve." This is attributed to the choice of pulling out of a card game, afraid to proceed because of the lack of money (Hendrickson, p. 160). However, there are some who believe this deals with the fear of confronting any unknown danger, declaring that his/her feet are too cold to proceed (Funk, Hog on Ice, p.33; Holt, pp 59-60); yet another source turns the situation around and points directly to war-time. Until the late 19th Century, soldiers in battle frequently had insufficient footwear, causing them to suffer from frozen feet. One whose feet are so afflicted would not be able to rush to the front and would be slow in advancing, at best (Castle, p. 63). In this last case, it is the cold feet that might appear to make a person seem cowardly, rather than being a legitimate reason for inaction.

Let us continue with the topic of military clothing. A soldier's outer garment - his/her coat - serves as more than a protection: it is a visible sign of his/her allegiance. The action of turning one's coat inside out could disguise that allegiance, allowing an individual to travel through the land of his enemy without detection (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 174-175). The Duke of Saxony had some difficulties with that allegiance factor because his property lay between that of the French and Spanish acquisitions. His land was often the scene of battle and, for his own protection, he owned a unique garment: a reversible coat. If the battle was turning in favor of Spain, he wore his coat to display the blue of the Spanish side; if it was turning in favor of France, he wore his coat with the French white on display. Of course, his behavior was eventually identified and he was berated for not sticking with a single allegiance and being, quite literally, a "turncoat." Today we use the same term to refer to a person who will switch sides as seems most convenient for him/her (Mordock & Korach, p. 34).

Of course, this coat color issue could be a major problem if the color is not bright or clear enough to be discerned. While modern depictions of the soldiers of the Middle Ages portray them in an array of bright colors, the reality is that the dyes of the day lacked brilliance and staying power: a piece of dyed cloth retained the color for a short time, at best, and even the clothing of royalty was dull and drab. However, time and desire led to an innovation that brought color to the soldiers' uniforms: an artisan discovered that if the wool was dyed before it was woven into cloth, as opposed to the prior methods of dying either the bolts of cloth or the garments themselves, the color became more fixed and the resulting fabric had a brighter color that lasted longer. From this came the phrase "dyed in the wool," and is applied to anything of high quality (Garrison, pp. 241-242) or to a person's ideals, beliefs, or customs that are firmly held (Drake, p. 102).

For those of use who are dyed in the wool genealogists, we stick to our guns when researching our ancestors, often believing that, under the auspices of great-great-grandfather we will be successful in locating his military records. When we are unsuccessful in finding the documents we seek, we face the music and do not falsify our findings. But, unlike some soldiers in battle, we are not lily-livered, turncoat cowards with cold feet. Instead, we steadfastly proceed forward, working with other researchers (with whom we hope to "click") to consider other courses of action in our battle to find the elusive ancestor.


Castle. Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Clich├ęs we Use. Secaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985

Drake, Paul. What did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings: How More than 400 Colorful & Familiar Expressions Originated and Developed. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1986.

Funk, Charles Earle. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions: The Origin & Development of the Pungent & Colorful Phrases we All Use. New York: Harper & Row, 1948, 1985.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986.

Funk, Charles Earle. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. New York: Harper & Row, 1950, 1985.

Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub. Co., 1978.

Garrison, Webb B. Why you Say it: The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Glazier, Stephen. Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1998.

Globe Digest. Why do Cowboys Wear High Heels? . . . and Other Fascinating Facts from around the World! Boca Raton, FL: American Media Mini Mags, Inc., 2000.

Hendrickson, R. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Holt, Alfred. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1936, 1961.

Mordock, John & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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