Engulfed by Lingo

Unless you've been living in a spider hole, it will neither shock nor awe you to learn that military slang has become increasingly, uh, embedded in American popular culture.

While hardly a new phenomenon - the military has been a source of American slang since the Revolutionary War - it does seem to be having a growth spurt. Ever since the World Trade Center was designated "ground zero," it has been (damn the torpedoes) full speed ahead for military jargon.


Not all of it reaches catch- phrase status. Some phrases, like old soldiers, simply fade away. Such, thankfully, was the case with Secretary of Defense Donald H.Rumsfeld's "known unknowns." Others hang on to become part of our everyday vernacular.

Time will tell which will be the case for the latest military metaphor to hit the airwaves - one that has been bandied about by no fewer than four of the participants in this week's 9/11 hearings:


"Hair on fire."

That odd phrase - believed to have originated among Navy aviators, intended to convey a sense of hair-raising urgency - quickly became the phrase of the day as this week's hearings began before the commission investigating events that led to 9/11.

First, it came from Richard Ben-Veniste, a commission member recounting allegations that President Bush ignored al-Qaida before the attacks, despite warnings from alarmed officials:

"People like [CIA] Director [George] Tenet, people like [former counter-terrorism chief] Richard Clarke, are running around, as they say, with their hair on fire, in the summer of 2001, knowing something big is going to happen," he said.

Then Rumsfeld used it, saying such alarm wasn't uncommon: " ... In the three years since I've been back in the Pentagon, there have been people running around with their hair on fire a lot of times. It isn't like it's once or twice or thrice."

Still later, Jamie S. Gorelick, another commission member, seized the metaphor: "If you look at the headlines ... in the period that has come to be known as the summer of threat, it would set your hair on fire, not just George Tenet's hair on fire."

Clarke, the Bush critic who appeared before the commission Wednesday, uses the phrase at least twice in his new book, Against All Enemies, Chapter 3 of which begins: "Charlie Allen had his hair on fire."

The repeated allusions to burning coifs were enough to make one wonder - amid the far more important questions the hearings are raising - just where that phrase came from.


Capt. Earle Rogers, a retired Navy flier who is vice president for communications at the Naval Air Museum Foundation in Pensacola, Fla., says the phrase goes back at least 25 years, probably more.

"I think the term is probably specific to naval aviation," he said. "It's just a phrase somebody coined, I'm not sure when. But it's one we all understand."

But what does it mean?

Too much going on

"Just what it sounds like," Rogers said. "You use it to describe one of those days that are just so frustrating, where you have so many balls up in the air, and you're trying to juggle so many things."



Like, that, but more under control. "It's like when you're going around in tight, tight circles ... trying to keep out of the way of enemy fire. Your hair can be on fire, but you still land the plane safely."

Rogers said that, to his knowledge, the phrase has nothing to do with the hair of pilots actually catching on fire in flight - it's more a figure of speech. He said he wasn't surprised to hear it was used by Rumsfeld, whose father was a Navy aviator.

As with most slang, its precise origin is difficult to pinpoint, and interpretations of it vary. Some use it to describe chaos, some use it to describe alarm, some use it to describe the edgy thrill of being a fighter pilot.

"This is the problem with slang," said John Reilly, an historian at the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington. "It's casual, it's informal. It's not like a memo goes out: From chief of naval operations to all hands, henceforth this will be called 'hair on fire.'

"There are all kinds of words and phrases that have naval origins, or are related to the military, or weaponry - 'half-cocked,' 'lock, stock and barrel.' In the Civil War, if you'd been in combat, you'd 'seen the elephant,'" he said.

While Navy aviators may have brought the phrase into more common use, references to "hair on fire" can be found much earlier - from the teachings of ancient Buddhists to the 1939 James Joyce novel Finnegan's Wake.


Joyce was clearly - to borrow some more aviator jargon - pushing the envelope when he wrote: "The Flash that Flies from Vuggy's Eyes has Set Me Hair On Fire, His is the House that Malt Made, Divine Views from Back to the Front, Abe to Sare Stood Icyk."

Ancient Buddhist wisdom - a little easier to grasp than Joyce, or, for that matter, Rumsfeld - holds that a person should seek enlightenment in the same way a person whose "hair is on fire" would seek water, meaning with the utmost urgency.

It was in 1986, though, that "hair on fire" got its biggest boost - being used in a line from that year's top-grossing movie, Top Gun.

"You're not going to be happy unless you're going Mach 2 with your hair on fire," Kelly McGillis (Instructor Charlotte Blackwood) says to Tom Cruise (Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell).

Nowadays, you can find the phrase being used for everything from describing the play of athletes to a Web site that promises "hair-on-fire marketing programs that help you attract more clients and earn more money."

How such oddball phrases become universal is mostly a matter of simple repetition. Bureaucrats repeat each other. Journalists - embedded and unembedded - repeat bureaucrats, then repeat each other, then start being repeated by bureaucrats, who are repeated by still more journalists and, eventually, the general public.


'Ground zero'

Look, for instance, at what happened with "ground zero."

No one knows who first used it to describe the site of the 9/11 attack, but the term - originally used by weapons testers in 1946 to define the point directly beneath a nuclear detonation - quickly became universally accepted as synonymous with the rubble that remained of the World Trade Center.

Then there was "shock and awe," the Bush administration's name for its strategy to invade Iraq. First it was used in the media. Then it was overused - appearing everywhere from the food pages to the sports pages and becoming an instant cliche in the process.

After that came "spider holes."

When Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole in the earth, an Army official described it as "a spider hole" - a term used by the Army during the Vietnam era.


The holes, in which Vietcong hid inside clay pots to ambush American troops, were so named because, if the pots broke, the guerrillas were subject to bites by poisonous spiders.

The term appeared in news accounts about Hussein's arrest, then took on a life of its own, being used - in the media as well as everyday conversation - to describe anyone who was out of touch or keeping a low profile.

"Something can become a cliche almost immediately now," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Look what happened with 'wardrobe malfunction'.

"Within 24 hours it was in use around the country and the world. But becoming a cliche and staying a cliche are two different things. Sometimes, the ones that have incredible bursts, that erupt almost spontaneously, don't make it to the end of the year."

Thompson said people are prone to pick up on military slang not just out of a sense of feeling united, but because it is often picturesque language.

"It is always delightful to hear the secret language of subcultures, especially when it's amusing and you can use it for a laugh at work the next day," he said. "But sometimes it's also because it takes language from a subculture to express what there isn't any other language to express."


Ground zero was an example of that. "Not a lot of other words would have worked," Thompson said.

But 9/11 was also the end of the line - at least for him - for using that term for anything else.

"What 9/11 did to the phrase 'ground zero' was the reverse of usual cliche making. It limited the use of the phrase instead of expanding it. I used to use it all the time to talk about the starting point of popular culture trends. But after 9/11, I was reluctant to do so. It was almost like that term was made sacred."


Military slang has been making the transition to everyday slang for centuries. Some examples:

Bought the farm -- Believed to have originated during World War I, when the families of soldiers killed in combat were given a "death benefit" in an amount large enough to buy a parcel of farmland.


Called on the carpet -- Once, only top officers had carpet in their offices, and being called before one -- generally for a reprimand -- was referred to in this way. Now, it applies to being summoned by the boss or other authority figure.

Fall on your sword -- From the military custom of committing suicide rather than surrendering, the phrase now means making a sacrifice, accepting responsibility or offering one's resignation.

Loose cannon -- Of nautical origin, it referred to improperly secured cannons likely to roll on the deck causing injury or damage; now used to refer to anyone or anything unpredictable.

Bang for the buck -- Believed to have first been used during the Cold War, when the Air Force was making the case for government funding of ballistic missiles, which, it was argued, could do more damage than a Navy aircraft carrier, and therefore represented a better investment.

Lock, stock and barrel -- The parts that make up a flintlock rifle; the phrase was used, and still is, to mean "the whole thing."

Damn the torpedoes -- Union Adm. David G. Farragut -- after being warned that mines (then called torpedoes) in Mobile Bay had damaged a ship in his fleet -- called out, "Damn the torpedoes!" and led his fleet into the bay, capturing Confederate-held Fort Morgan in 1864. After that, the phrase "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" was picked up as a rallying cry to press on, despite the hazards.


Sources: The Word Detective (www.word-detec, The Word Spy (, Bartleby (, The Phrase Finder (, Word Origins (www.wordori