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All information presented in this webpage is from a college research paper done by Tammy L. Goss.It was adapted and converted (to HTML format) from a MS/WORD file that was posted on a Submarine Veteran BBS in Dec. 2005. That internet posting was made by John Carcioppolo of Groton Base of USSVI (United States Submarine veterans Inc.).
Ms. Goss' entire paper - in .doc format
- may be downloaded from HERE.
There is also a link in HTML format currently at the USS IREX website. (External link) Access HERE. Use your back button to return to this page.
Sid Harrison (Webmaster: sid-hill.com)
In specific, I would like to thank Submariners from the following ships:
ENG 421 Research Paper
"It’s rack time". "Honey I am pretty sure the washing machine is FUBAR". "I am down to the short strokes at work. I should be home soon." "We don’t have any geedunk in the house!" What? It took a while for me to get used to my husband’s special phrases that he uses at home and for the first few years we were married I had to ask him to please speak ‘civilian’. Although he has been off of active submarine duty for almost ten years, he still retained some of the special expressions that were an integral part of his job aboard the submarine, USS Louisville SSN724. When the time came for me to conduct a linguistic research project, I found a chance to delineate, define, and describe the colorful language of Submariners and issue a follow-up of Ervin J. Gaines’ Talking Under Water: Speech in Submarines.
The lexicon of the military are unique sets of jargon and slang that enable the men and women of the military to do their very difficult jobs. Each segment of the military; Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, has a highly specialized vocabulary that allow for quick and accurate discourse during times of stress and difficulty. While all the major groups have a common core vocabulary, there are subdivisions that allow an even more precise vocabulary for such groups such as Submariners. This research proposes to highlight some of the specialized lexical items for Submariners who served during the period of World War II until present day. Identification will include such information as semantics and semantic shifts, jargon and slang, etymology, usage, and phraseology. Military organizations, like nearly all large, exclusive organizations, develop slang as a means of self-identification.
For the purposes of this research, slang is defined as informal words used as a semantic shortcut for conventional words as used for in-group discourse (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, 63-65). Jargon is a specialized set of vocabulary items that are used for a specialized group; in this case Submariners (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, 61-62). A lexicon is the vocabulary used in verbal and written communication (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, 56). A lexicon can consist of formal and informal terminology, as well as suffixes and prefixes (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, 56).
Submarines are a part of the history of the United States since the days of the American Revolution. On September 7, 1776, the Turtle, a one-man submarine was unsuccessful in attempt to attach a torpedo to the hull of the HMS Eagle anchored off New York Harbor. April 11, 1900 marks the official birth date of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force when John P. Holland sells his internal combustion, gasoline powered submarine, Holland VI, to the Navy (Chief of Naval Operations, Submarine Warfare Division). From that moment on, submarines have been an indispensable force in the United States Navy.
Submarine service is an elite force; not everyone is cut out for the rigorous life style of living aboard a submarine, most often for months at a time with over a hundred other men. Submariners are one of the most highly trained people in the navy and their jobs are extremely technical. Each Submariner has his own specialty, but regardless of their job they are required to learn how everything on the ship works in order to become qualified submariners. Qualification earns them the right to wear the coveted gold (officers) or silver (enlisted) Dolphin pin.
Because the ship is so compact, with many different personalities on board, life aboard a submarine can be challenging. Many of the crew will build strong friendships that may last a lifetime and there can be a strong sense of brotherhood, with all the ups and downs that true familial brothers experience. This brotherhood can be seen in the stories that Submariners tell, the books that they write, and especially in the language that they use.
This research involved interviewing, via an emailed questionnaire (appendix1), a number of Submariners from a cross-section of time periods. These time periods were roughly segmented into three groups; World War II, the Cold War, and Present Day. Responses were nicely varied from various rankings of Submariners and the respondents consisted of either retired Submariners or those currently serving aboard a submarine. Those informants who wished to remain anonymous were assigned an alphanumeric code that represented their submarine number and a unique three-digit respondent code.
For those who did not supply a submarine, but did give a period of service, their codes were generated with the appropriate time period code and a unique three-digit number. For purposes of cross-referencing those terms that are a part of the general Navy service, four individuals who were not Submariners were also interviewed and also assigned a unique respondent code.
Response to the questionnaire was immense, with over 170 sailors submitting at least one term or definition for the project. Because of the response, what started out as 58 entries soon grew to 475 terms, and even this is probably still incomplete. The information collected was then put into a database, which showed the various definitions for terms included on the questionnaire as well as any items that were added by informants. This database allowed for a more precise determination of words and acronyms that consist of a) widespread Naval terms, b) submarine service terms only, c) specialized jargon, d) slang and e) shifts in terminology from WWII to present day. The glossary of terms was then created from the database (appendix 2), which allowed for duplications to be removed and differences in etymology to be highlighted. There were only a few problems encountered in researching this project, two of which were the sheer volume of information and how to address offensive words.
One of the decisions that needed to be made in disseminating this research was whether or not to include the vulgar or offensive words. Sailors, and especially Submariners, are a creative group, and the label of "salty-talk" certainly is still applicable to today’s lexicon. Some of these may have lost their shock value for those people who are used to today’s slang and ‘curse’ words, however many of them are still considered socially unacceptable.
This paper does include these words because to omit them would be to invalidate any serious linguistic study; these words and phrases are an important part of a sailor’s jargon. In fact, "the omission of obscenity in reporting military lingo demonstrates a failure to recognize this fundamental fact: obscenity, in the Armed Forces especially, serves as a semantic short cut in conversation" (Howard, 189). Howard continues, "Its ability to compress meaning into a few choice four-letter epithets, and thus avoid excess verbiage … makes it a utilitarian method of oral communication that is practiced by the educated as well as the uneducated" (Howard, 189). Therefore, it is with this information that this paper includes terminology exactly as the Submariners reported on the questionnaire, obscenities and all.
There were only a few more difficulties in conducting this research. Some of the respondents did not remember many of the terms they had used aboard ship but all respondents added at least one term or story to explain a word. Additionally, some respondents had conflicting information on some words, though generally this was limited to just a few items. One caveat must be addressed: most of these terms are not official U.S. Navy terminology. The Navy does not hand a jargon book to new recruits, but nonetheless it is taught through general usage in basic training, advanced training schools, and day-to-day usage aboard ships. However, for those interested in further study or comparison, there are a number of official U.S. Navy Websites that list a large lexicon of general naval terms.
Results and Analysis
Several interesting patterns emerged from this research. Regardless of boat, age, rate, or rank most terms were consistent in definition. The overwhelming majority of Submariners agreed on the terminology, even among those whose service was many years ago or those who were aboard different types of submarines. Additionally, it appears that very few of the words changed from the WWII years until present day and those that have mainly apply to new technology and not general terms. In fact, some of the terms can be found to date back to the early days of sailing.
According to the Website The Goat
Locker, the phrase originated due to a mascot issues between the Army
and the Navy.
Another term that can be traced back to the days of wooden sailing ships is the word head, which is used for the latrine aboard ships. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was originally used to denote the fore part of the ship, the bows and was first seen in use in 1485 (Head, 21, OED), possibly for the figurehead that is located on that part of the ship. Because the latrine was located in the bow of the ship, the use of head for lavatory came into evidence in 1748 (Head, 21d, OED). This term is still in use navy wide, and can be seen in such examples as "I have to use the head", and head break which is used as a verb, as in "to take over the watch for someone so they can go to the bathroom" (see glossary).
Submariners are full of interesting
and funny stories and one submitted is a good example of the use of the
words head and head call among other terms such as rig
for red, CO, and the opening line of all Submariner stories,
is a no shitter…
One term that seemed to take root with aviators and submariners first, and spread to the general navy, is the rather recent linguistic development of khaki. Khaki has its etymology in the Persian language where it means dusty or khak (dust) (OED, A, khaki). The British army originally used the material, which has been dyed a dusty/dull brownish yellow color, for field uniforms starting in 1857, during India and Afghanistan campaigns (OED, B, khaki). Khakis were then approved for use by Navy aviators in 1912 and were adopted for submarines in 1931. Ten years later the Navy approved khakis for wear by senior officers in the general Navy, those who are E-7 or above (see glossary). The word khakis is now often used as KCB (Khaki Clad Bastard) or collectively as The Khaki Clan by enlisted sailors, showing an adjectival shift to pejoration, most likely in reference to those officers who were less than friendly or abused their powers.
Specific Submariner Terminology
Most terminology that can be categorized as Specific Submariner Terminology is applicable to the technological advances that are required for submarines, such as Angles and Dangles, baffles, boomer, Crazy Ivan, and the phrase Hot, Straight and Normal. However, there are several exceptions such as Dolphins, getting one’s Dolphins, tacking on the Dolphins, and Silent Service, which are more oriented toward the culture of belonging to the Submarine Service than the actual technology.
One of the proudest moments for any Submariner is when they receive their Dolphins. Dolphins are the warfare insignia of the submarine fleet and represented as two Pacific dolphins (Dorado or Mahi-Mahi) flanking the prow of a WW II-type submarine cruising on surface with bow planes rigged out, gold for officers and silver for enlisted. Dolphins are earned through a process of qualifying in which individuals must learn the location of equipment, operation of systems, damage control procedures and have a general knowledge of operational characteristics of their boat.
The origin of the U.S. Navy's Submarine Service Insignia dates back to 1923 when Captain Ernest J. King, USN, suggested that a distinguishing device for qualified submariners be adopted. According to Sub Stories, "The Officer's Insignia is a gold plated metal pin, worn centered above the left breast pocket and above the ribbons or medals. Enlisted men wore the insignia embroidered in silk …this was sewn on the outside of the right sleeve, midway between the wrist and elbow. In mid 1947 the embroidered device shifted from the sleeve of the enlisted men's jumper to above the left breast pocket. Subsequently, silver metal Dolphins were approved for enlisted men" (Dolphins).
Getting one’s Dolphins means achieving the status of a qualified Submariner. This is accompanied by the current, unapproved practice of tacking on (SSN724001). Tacking on was originally used as a rather innocuous term. During early WWII when a Submariner received qualification, they received the Dolphin patch. Tacking on then signified the sewing on of the Dolphin patch although today the term has shifted to a description of a ritual group activity than a solitary one.
Tacking on as a ritual was officially disapproved of during President Clinton’s first term in the early 1990s (Beck, SSN724), though it is still unofficially practiced and a great source of pride. According to one informant, the turning point for condemning the traditional rite of passage was the death of a Submariner aboard the USS Los Angeles. The sailor in question did not die from the ritual tacking on the Dolphins, but allegedly committed suicide after an investigation that was conducted by the COB (Chief of Boat, see glossary) who placed pressure on the man to inform on his peers.
There are two types of tacking on;
one is tacking on the Crows, which refers to the practice of punching
the arm of a newly promoted Petty Officer, also now in disfavor due to
past abuses and tacking on the Dolphins which is similar, but instead
of the Petty Officer insignia on the shoulder, it is the punching of the
submarine Dolphins into one’s chest, usually leaving two blood marks
on the uniform shirt from the pins on the back of the Dolphins.
These bloody marks are a great source of pride (SSN724002) and one Submariner
states, "…we went out to celebrate. We went to a bar where my Dolphins
taken from me and dropped into a glass containing alcohol. I had to chug
it and catch my Dolphins between my teeth before I was allowed to
put them back on my uniform. I don’t even remember how many glasses I had
to drink before I caught them" (SSN724001). The ritual hazing of tacking
on has changed over the years since Submariners during WWII, but by
most accounts, there was usually a ritual. When these men received their
patch, tacking on meant that they were thrown overboard at the first
One WWII Veteran said that there was no ceremony or ritual for the awarding of the Dolphins; he was just handed the patch. He had to sew them on his uniform himself, but it was still a significant moment for him. No matter how much the term and ritual ceremony has changed, tacking on is a great source of pride for Submariners for it means they are officially now an elite member of the Silent Service.
According to several informants, the label Silent Service appears to have undergone a semantic shift in connotation, from one of pejoration to amelioration. However, as one captain stated, "This (the term Silent Service) came into use in WWII because any mention of our submarines or their operations was likely to be of use by the Japanese and do harm to us. I never knew it to be a negative term, but always considered it to be a proud description" (Anderson). Contrasting with this statement are the comments of a WWII Veteran. One of the respondents passed on along the information that during WWII, it was decided by the military that a newspaper editor should create a sexy name to make submarine service sound more elite in news stories. He then coined the term Silent Service and put it into use in the newspaper stories and newsreels that were shown in the movie theaters. The label was a source of ridicule by all the Submariners he knew (WWII000). In Ervin J. Gaines' article Talking Under Water: Speech in Submarines; there is verification of this definition. "A publicity agents glamorous name for submarine service. Scorned by submariners it is not used anywhere in the Navy" (Gaines, 38) although subsequent research has failed to turn up the publicity agent’s name or the article in question.
Another Veteran, this one from the Cold
War era gives a different and more detailed explanation:
Yet another person gives information
that is very similar:
Although these may be different definitions for the same term, they all have something in common – Silent Service is now considered an elite section of the U.S. Navy and the men who belong to her are full of pride in the fact that not everyone can be a member of the Silent Service.
Personal and Personnel Terminology
Military slang is used to reinforce the sometimes friendly inter-service rivalries. Some of these may be considered derogatory and attempts have been made to eliminate them, however these have failed because it appears that most service members take a certain pleasure in the sense of a shared hardship which the nickname implies. The compact environment of a submarine and the long time the crew spends submerged ensures that a specialized lexicon will develop to help commanding officers and crew members maintain control, increase teamwork, and keep undesirable personal and work traits to a minimum. This is often seen in the derisive terms that are applied to those who are seen as not pulling their weight, creating strife, or other objectionable behaviors. These include such names as Check Valve for a person who is out for himself and doesn’t help others, a Dink or Dink Bitch is someone who is delinquent in qualification points, KCB or Khaki Clad Bastard, which denotes the higher up officers. Mustang is used to point out someone who was enlisted but has gone up through the ranks to become an officer and can be used both in a positive and a negative manner, depending on the personal attributes of the officer.
NUB is an acronym for Non-Useful
Body and is applied to any person who is new or considered inept; literally
a person who is wasting precious air and space in a place where personal
space is already nonexistent. Skimmer is a term applied to any Navy
personnel who is on a surface ship. Skimmer is frequently modified to indicate
disgust by the adjective fucking, thereby showing the sense of elitism
that Submariners have in their post. However, this is not limited to Submariners
only; surface personnel also have a label they apply to Submariners – Bubblehead.
This is also frequently modified by the same adjective that is used with
A more interesting phrase is the term Swinging Dick. This is used
to address a group of crewmen and is generally used in an emphatic address
such as "I want every Swinging Dick working on it" and indicative of the
linguistic creativity that accompanies being a Submariner. Appendix three
also shows some common submarine acronyms that are official navy terminology.
Geedunk or gedunk, however one spells it, is a unique name used by sailors and has consistently been in use since at least WWII. The term gedunk was originally a noun that was used for desserts, junk food, or candy. Later the word generalized and broadened to a more inclusive adjective that also meant any work that was easy, extras, benefits, awards, ribbons, or medals. It appears that almost anything that was ‘sweet’ or ‘easy’ could be tagged with the descriptor gedunk.
Gedunk is one of those lexical items that has several different historical origins; each one seems plausible, but all are unverifiable. One informant states that this came from the sound the mobile candy/food cart had when was rolled, a type of ‘geh DUNK’, thumping sound (CW001). Another said it was from a cartoon strip that had a candy store named ‘The Gedunk’ (WWII021) and a third said it was from the German word getunk, which loosely means to repeatedly dunk stale breads into coffee to soften it and some of the items sold on the roach coach were a bit stale and hard (WWII0011).
Not always is the term gedunk a positive modifier. The usage of gedunk medal is always in a derisive or sarcastic tone, meaning the National Defense Service medal, which is considered a meaningless medal. Each war has its own national defense service medal and is considered gedunk because you only have to be in the military to get it, even if you haven’t directly participated in the war effort. If a sailor has been in the military since Vietnam, he would have 3 National Defense Service medals, one for Vietnam, and two for each of the Gulf Wars (SSN724045).
FUBAR is an acronym that stands for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition that has been in consistent use since WWII and in fact it was made popular in that war. Generally it is applied to machinery and situations that seem to have no positive conclusion in sight. Currently, it has crossed over into computer programming language to mean "failed UniBus address register", though it is unsure whether this is a coincidence or not.
Other terms that have remained consistent from WWII until the present are Christmas Tree, Chop or Porkchop, ladder chancre, rig for red, bottom, crack the hatch, hold me up, among many others. In general, there are very few words that are not in use today that were popular during the early 40s and most of these are related to the new technology that is aboard submarines.
Overall, the lexical vocabulary of Submariners has changed little since the 1940s as evidenced by a comparison to Ervin J. Gaines' article Talking Under Water: Speech in Submarines. Ervin lists forty-six terms and definitions. All but a few of them are still in use on today’s submarines with exactly the same or very similar etymology. More interesting detail is evidenced when a comparison is made between Ervin’s categories of official and unofficial Navy terminology. Of the fourteen terms in the official category, all but one is still in use. In the unofficial category, eight of the expressions are now considered to be official navy terminology (Powell, 2005). In comparing this research’s questionnaire to Gaines’ article, the majority of the changes in words, especially in etymology have to do with the new technologies now aboard submarines as compared to WWII.
Submarine jargon and slang is as rich and varied as the history of the boats themselves. Some lexical items from specific occupations always make their way into everyday language and this is no less true for the military. A quick glance at the Oxford English Dictionary lists many such generic military terms that have crossed into everyday English. However, according to the article New Words: Where do They Come From and Where do They Go? there is a possibility that the migration of words from subcultures to dominant cultures depends on the interaction between the two cultures (Maurer, High, 185).
Because the Submarine Service is such a tight, cohesive network of elite brothers, there is little chance that many of the specialized terminology, technical or otherwise, will cross over into everyday speech. It seems for now; Silent Service will remain silent in sharing its lexicon.
|Ms. Goss' entire paper - in .doc format
- may be downloaded from HERE.
Size is 935 KB