US army soldier holding their helmet and standing in a field.

34 military terms and their meanings

Written by:
June 7, 2019
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34 military terms and their meanings

"Alfa, Bravo, Charlie..." is an alphabet that you may already know and understand. These words represent the letters "A," "B," and "C" in the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, more commonly known as the NATO phonetic alphabet. It was standardized in 1956 with sounds that are similar in English, French, and Spanish, and the military still uses it today to omit misunderstandings over radio. If you aren't using it already, this would be a good one to adopt for those customer service calls where you need to read your 17-digit confirmation code that somehow is made up letters that all sound the same.

Or how about when someone says "Meet me here at 1400?" The military time system, which uses the 24-hour clock, is another method used to prevent mistakes or confusion between a.m. and p.m. times, as critical missions leave no room for miscommunications. This is another one that may come in handy to civilians with a propensity for setting their alarm at the wrong time or showing up to appointments at 7 p.m. instead of 7 a.m.  

In addition to uniform systems such as these, there is plenty more to unpack in the language of military women and men. The centuries-long history of the U.S. military allowed those who serve to basically develop their own language. Stacker consulted members of various military branches as well as existing military dictionaries to find 34 terms, phrases, acronyms, and nicknames that you may want to add to your repertoire. Some are used in official military procedures while others are slang terms and acronyms that only members of one branch or another might know. Perhaps you are already using some of this lingo and don't even realize the military origins.

Read on to make your communication more efficient or in many cases, just more fun.

You may also like: Do you know your military traditions?

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // Wikimedia Commons


One of the more familiar military terms is "AWOL," an acronym for "absent without leave." Someone who takes on this status is gone without permission, typically in the context of abandoning your post.

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U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

Azimuth check

An azimuth is an angular measurement in a spherical coordination system. While usually used as a technical term in land navigation, this phrase can generally refer to taking the time to stop and ensure the current task (whatever it may be) is being done right.

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Gorodenkoff // Shutterstock

Beat feet

A fun-sounding rhyme, "beat feet" means to move from your current location quickly, as in to beat your feet on the pavement. 

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PRESSLAB // Shutterstock

Bite the bullet

An expression you may already be using, legend has it that this saying was derived from having service members bite a bullet during battlefield surgery to distract them from pain. The aphorism means to accept the inevitable or impending suffering and move past it quickly and with fortitude. 

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wavebreakmedia // Shutterstock


Commonly used in the Marines, "boot" is a somewhat derogatory term for a novice service member, often one who is fresh out of boot camp. Depending on who you ask, it stands for "beginning of one's tour" or "barely out of training."

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ANURAKE SINGTO-ON // Shutterstock

Chow down

Another one on the list you may already be using, this phrase is understood to have military origins. The literal meaning is to sit down and eat. "Chow" is a popular word for food for members of the armed forces and is used interchangeably with "mess." Both words lend themselves to dining places: "chow hall" or "mess hall."

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Staff Sgt. Debbie Lockhart // USAF


"Civvies" is a nickname for civilian (nonmilitary service members) outfits or clothing. 

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narin phapnam // Shutterstock

Coup de grace

"Coup de grace" translates in French to "stroke of grace" or "blow of mercy." You may have heard this defined as a mercy kill, but the phrase is also applied to the final action necessary to finish a task.

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Dear John

"Dear John" is when one's significant other breaks up with them through a letter, often when the person is deployed or training away from home. The term (often used as a verb; to "Dear John someone") was popularized by the 2010 film starring Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum.

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Senior Airman Mikaley Kline // USAF


Short for dining facility, some military members use "DFAC" to refer to a "chow hall."

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U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago


"Dud" has been adopted to mean something that does not work. The technical origin is from the Middle English word "dudde" which refers to worn out clothing and was later expanded to weapons that were worn out or dysfunctional. Now dud is synonymous with junk, and can be applied to anything (or anyone) that does not work as it was supposed to.

Some say the term was applied to weapons from the sound a bomb makes when it does not go off (a "thud" or a "dud").

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getmilitaryphotos // Shutterstock


Exactly what it sounds like, "fangs" is a Marine Corps term for one's teeth. 

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Straight 8 Photography // Shutterstock

Fruit salad

Slang for the ribbons and medals on a Marine uniform, due to the rich array of color contrasting with the plain blue uniform. 

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Lance Cpl. Vaniah Temple


"FTA" is an acronym that stands for "failure to adapt." Someone can be reprimanded or discharged for this lack of a versatility, and some modern workplaces may use this terminology to evaluate employees. 

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Keystone // Getty Images


While the origin of "FUBAR" is debated (one source said it was from the German word "furchtbar," meaning frightful, or terrible), it has now been popularized to stand for "f****d/fouled up beyond repair." This term can be heard used famously in movies like "Tango and Cash" and "Saving Private Ryan" and refers to a situation that has gone very wrong. 

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OFF/AFP // Getty Images

Full battle rattle

Another rhyme on the list, this one means to be wearing all of your battle gear.

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U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Damon J. Moritz.

Grab some real estate

A phrase often used to indicate some sort of physically taxing punishment will ensue. The "real estate" is likely a patch of grass or an area of cement where you will be expected to lower your body down on. 

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U.S. Air Force photo by Col. Tim Vining

Groundhog Day

This term refers to repetitive, boring situations. The concept was popularized by a Bill Murray film of the same name in 1993. 

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Sgt. Christopher A. Green/U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons

Have someone's 6

Meaning to have someones back, the phrase applies to physically watching the 6 o'clock of someone on a mission or in battle. Using clock position, the 6 o'clock would indicate behind or below that person. 

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iyd39 // Shutterstock


"MREs" are packages of food for combat or other field positions, representing "meals ready to eat." 

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Pumi Zumi // Shutterstock

Oxygen thief

An "oxygen thief" is witty, derogatory slang for someone who talks too much. 

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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeffrey M. Richardson


"Rack" is slang for bed. Beds in boot camp and on ships are notoriously uncomfortable, with rack summoning the vision of an uncomfortable piece of metal. 

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Gorodenkoff // Shutterstock


"Roger" or "Roger that" is used over radio or phone to indicate message received and understood.

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wavebreakmedia // Shutterstock


"Skate" or "skate by" means try not to do work. Some say it stands for "seek cover," "keep quiet," "accept no responsibility," "take no action," and "evade."

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Poprotskiy Alexey // Shutterstock


"Skivvies" is a nickname for undershirt or underwear that one wears under their uniform. 

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U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Dalton Smit


To "smoke" someone is to punish, particularly with physical exercise.

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Cpl. Daniel Blatter // Wikimedia Commons


Similar to "FUBAR" the actual origin of "SNAFU" is debated, but it has come to mean "situation normal all f****d/fouled up."

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Orlando/Three Lions // Getty Images

Soup sandwich

Another fun one to adopt, a "soup sandwich" is exactly what it sounds like—chaos or a mess. Just picture two pieces of bread holding soup in place. 

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"TS" stands for "top secret." It is often applied to specific pieces of information but is also used in "TS/SCI-cleared," which is a blanket top secret security clearance. 

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Uncle Sam

"Uncle Sam" is a personification of the U.S. government and sometimes the U.S. military specifically. Uncle and Sam begin with the country's letters and legend has it is actually meant to be Samuel Wilson, a meatpacker from New York, who lived from 1766–1854.

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Tech. Sgt. Sabrina Johnson // U.S. Air Force


"Voluntold" is exactly what it sounds like, an oxymoron combining volunteer and told. It is something one is asked to do voluntarily, but it has an unspoken understanding that it is not actually optional.

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Laura Lakeway/Released // US Navy


You may read this as hugs and kisses, but "XO" refers to an executive officer. In many militaries, the "XO" is the second in command and often in charge of day-to-day activities. 

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U.S. Air Force photo/Liz Copan


A "zoomie" is a fun way to say pilot. In the military, zoomie generally refers specifically to a member of the U.S. Air Force or a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.

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