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34 military terms and their meanings

  • 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?

  • AWOL

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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. 

  • Boot

    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."

  • 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."

  • Civvies

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • DFAC

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