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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Words of War, Part 3

Many words and phrases we use today can be traced to original usage in the Civil War and earlier conflagrations. Here popular terms from the War Between the States are examined and their application to modern life is explained.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1623 (approx.)
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Earlier examinations of Words of War have looked at the terms that originated with weapons, fortifications, and troop behaviors in many different wars across a broad time line. Here we will focus more specifically on the terminology that has come into vogue from the 19th Century and, more specifically, from the American Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln came up for reelection during the Civil War. As part of his campaign, and because of the continuing conflagration, Lincoln coined a phrase that has become part of American vernacular: "don't swap horses in the middle of the stream." Lincoln was specifically referring to the War Between the States and the unwise maneuver of changing the Commander in Chief while so engaged. When he was reelected, he modestly attributed it to the intelligence of the people, knowing "not to swap horses while crossing the river" (the river being analogous to the War) (Holt, p. 232). Today this term applies to not changing leadership in the middle of an ongoing action, lest disaster result, and has been adapted to situations far removed from war activities (e.g., not changing coaches mid-season, not changing bosses mid-project, etc.). Although the phrase has been attributed to Lincoln, Charles Earle Funk has traced its origin to about 1840, with the same meaning applied (pp. 139-140).

In 1859, before the Civil War began, Colonel Bernard Bee ordered the stringing of telegraph lines running from Placerville, California to Virginia City, Nevada, by hanging the wires on trees. It may have seemed a thrifty maneuver at the time, but the once-taut wire soon slackened and it ended up on the ground, resembling wild, trailing grapevine. These same types of telegraph wires, eventually running along the ground, were employed during the Civil War and were called "grapevine telegraph" lines. Unfortunately, besides the obvious problem of being underfoot, these fallen wires did not transmit messages with much reliability; often it was difficult to interpret a communication that was received over the wires and the messages that were handed to the officers were frequently full of errors. Because of this unreliability, these messages were looked on with skepticism and even considered just rumors. From this evolved the term "heard through the grapevine," meaning a message that was passed along via unreliable means with an indefinite source (Castle, pp. 109-110; Holt, p. 113).

A third term that was born of the Civil War is "hooker," meaning, "prostitute." The story is told that General Joseph Hooker kept a particularly disorderly camp and that ladies of the evening were often found keeping company with Hooker's men. These women were called "Hooker's girls," but eventually that was shortened to "hooker," providing the General with a lasting legacy (Globe Digests, p. 80). "Not so," says word scholar David Wilton, whose exploration into the etymological beginnings of this term is admirable, at the very least. Following much research, Wilton proclaims that the term "hooker," meaning "prostitute," was around at least 15 years prior to the War Between the States and that its probable origin is nothing more than the tendency of women in this line of work to "hook" their prospects (not literally; but with their attire and suggestive talk). Wilton goes on to add that this term may have been kept alive through the "name dropping" of the amoral General (pp. 130-131).

Moving from the actions of individuals to those of entire companies, brings us to the word "campaign." Today this word conjures up images of politicians; however, as recently as the 1860s, a "campaign" referred to military operations. Because the battles were usually fought in a field or campus, the term "campaign" was adopted. Other related terms have resulted, though they are often applied to different arenas. That same "campus" is the "field" on which a university or college is located; when we go on an outing, we "camp" in a "field" (or at least a clearing); when we leave the "field," we "decamp"; and when someone is afraid of something and deserts the "field," he/she is called a "scamp" (formerly the term for a coward, though it has evolved to be much less negative today). On the other hand, the one who stays in the "field" to fight and win is called a "champion." And, in France, the product of what is grown in the rolling hills and "fields" - grapes - is turned into "champagne," which may be enjoyed by those "champions," especially following a sports event (e.g., the World Series) or a successful political "campaign" (W. Funk, p. 225). As an aside, the dean who works on that college "campus" also gets his/her title from the military: the Roman deanus served as "a commander of a division of ten." The word was later adapted to the religious realm where the "dean" served as "the head of ten monks in a monastery"; it soon found its way into the educational arm of that institution (p. 238).

As genealogists, we often wish to acquire the service records of our military veteran ancestors. Among those records are the "muster rolls": when the troops gathered together, it was said that they were "mustered" (meaning "collect together") (Drake, p. 201). In some cases, the word "muster" means "inspect a group of soldiers" (Evans, p. 180); this evolved into the phrase "to pass muster," meaning that the troops were successful in being "inspected and approved" (Barnhart, Chambers dictionary of etymology, p. 689). In general audiences, this term has come to mean "summon" or "gather together," with no military context or inspection required (Glazier, p. 545).

Now let's take a brief look at some words dealing with the weapons used by those 1860s soldiers and how they have infiltrated our modern day language. Without ammunition, of course, firearms would be useless (unless used as clubs). It is curious how the word for "a regularly dispensed volume of written articles" goes by the same name as "a container for ammunition": "magazine." It turns out that both uses originate with the Arabic word "makhzan," meaning "storehouse." While initially the storehouse referred to could contain anything, its primary use was for military paraphernalia (Garrison, pp. 419-420). In 1731, a publisher decided that it would make a good term for a periodical since the publication "stored" items of interest. By 1744, the word was adapted to the chamber used to house bullets in a gun (Barnhart, p. 621).

Within the magazine are "cartridges," another word with an interesting etymological history. The Italians made a material called carta, as close to our modern paper as was possible in the 15th Century and before. Someone decided that, if rolled up and used to hold gunpowder, this substance would make a handy, pre-measured container for quick access during hunting or battle. Over the course of time, and as other substances were developed, gunpowder found its way into bags made of various textiles while retaining the name carta. In 1650, the bundles included the necessary shot or balls, along with the powder, and the name was adjusted to "cartridge." Even with the advent of modern firearms, the name has remained (Garrison, p. 298).

It is somewhat ironic that this last word has been adapted to the electronic age with the use of the electric typewriter: the package that contains the necessary ingredients for "shooting off a letter" - the ribbon and accompanying spools - was called a "cartridge"; the same word we use to describe the containers of ink in today's computer printers and other like equipment. All of this from a word that meant, essentially, "paper" (so when we load our printers with paper and ink cartridges, maybe we are really saying we are loading them with "paper and paper").

It appears to me that genealogists, hooked into doing family history by the desire to make sense of family legends, often passed along via the grapevine, frequently learn the truths about their ancestors by camping in libraries and searching old (and new) magazines (and other resources), hoping to compile a viable history of their lineage. Sometimes a family historian is no longer able to continue the research, possibly due to illness, expenses, or even death, and the family documents are passed on to another researcher, thereby swapping horses midstream. But if the initial scholar has documented everything accurately, the new custodian of the family genealogy, mustering all the records and documents, can load the computer with a fresh cartridge and get everything down on paper (or disc) to disseminate to the whole clan.

References Barnhart, R. K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins and Development of over 25,000 English Words. New York: Chambers Harrap Pub., Ltd., 2003. Castle. Why Do We Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Clich├ęs We Use. Secaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985. Drake, P. What Did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003. Evans, B. J. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians, 3rd Ed. Alexandria, VA: Hearthside Press, 1995. Funk, C. E. 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, W. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub. Co., 1978. Garrison, W. B. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955. Glazier, S. 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. Holt, A. H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1936, 1961. Wilton, D. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.

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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