10 Common Words and Phrases that Originated in the Military

Americans hardly go an hour without using an abstract phrase that everyone knows, but no one really understands. Some of them come from instances of mishearing something or vernacular that was originally used for specific jobs or trades, but did you know a lot of the figures of speech we use today come from the military? Check out these ten everyday phrases that originated in the U.S. armed forces.

Do You Speak Military?


This word, which today means a date or time by which something is due, originated in the Army during the Civil War. When the military took prisoners of war, they would draw a line around the entire group’s allowed living spaces. If prisoners crossed the line, they were shot, no exceptions. The line around the camp became known as the deadline because you died if you crossed it.

Bite the Bullet

To “bite the bullet” means to do something unpleasant or difficult. During the Civil War, chloroform and whiskey (used for early anesthetics) ran out. However, there was no lack of injured soldiers, and surgeries and amputations were daily occurrences. Because the soldiers were awake and fully aware of what was going on while their injured limbs were being operated on or removed, they were given bullets to bite down on. Apparently it provided soldiers a way to channel their pain and helped them stay relatively still during the surgery.

With Flying ColorsWith Flying Colors is a Phrase that Originated in the Miitary

This phrase means to do something really well, and it originated in the Navy. There were strict regulations for when to fly their flags, also called their colors, during battles. One such regulation said that a flag was to be flown for the length of the battle and only brought down if the ship surrendered. However, if a ship emerged from battle “with flying colors,” it meant that they were victorious.

Heard it through the Grapevine

This common phrase originated during the Civil War when telegraphs were just starting to be used. The wires used for telegraphy were twisted around each other and wooden pillars, which lead the soldiers to refer to them as grapevines.


This common nickname for gossip originated in the Navy. While out at sea, the scuttlebutt was a barrel where all the water on the ship was kept. While soldiers went to the scuttlebutt to get a drink, chit-chat would ensue. Eventually the name of the watering place became synonymous with the petty gossip swapped there.


Today, blockbuster is a term used to refer to a movie that amassed great success in the box office. But during World War II, a blockbuster was a bomb big enough to wipe out entire city blocks with just one drop.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that “if anything can go wrong, it will.” It was named after an Air Force Captain named Edward A. Murphy. He coined the term after inspecting an airplane whose electrical wiring had been done incorrectly. He thought the electrical engineer on the plane was completely incompetent, which lead him to exclaim, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.” The quote was simplified and became affectionately known as “Murphy’s Law.”

The Term Sideburn Originated in the Military with Ambrose BurnsideSideburns

Civil War general Ambrose Burnside was known for his unique and novel ways of styling his facial hair. He usually sported long whiskers on his cheeks, and when other men started copying the same look, they called their new style burnsides. Eventually the word was transposed, and people referred to the hair that grew on men’s cheeks as sideburns.  

Dear John

This is the name of an infamous breakup letter sent to boyfriends who have been gone for a long time. The name originated during World War II when soldiers would over-analyze the salutations in the letters sent from their girlfriends back home. The smart men noticed that letters of women who were still faithfully in love with their soldier would address their letters with flowery phrases like “My dearest love.” However, when feelings were fading, women would address their letters simply, “Dear (Name).” Once a letter was addressed like this, a breakup letter was sure to follow. Using the anonymous John Doe, soldiers began to call their breakup notes “Dear John letters.”

Loose Cannon

When someone is a “loose cannon,” they have an unpredictable temper and can get mad at seemingly any moment. The term originated in the Navy’s early history when soldiers would tie cannons down so that they didn’t slide around or misfire while the ship was sailing. Sometimes cannons slipped free from their ties when the water was rough, and the cannons would slide around the deck. When that happened, soldiers would call the weapons loose cannons.

Military Words and Their Origina TestChallenge Completed: Tell Us How You Did!

How many of those phrases do you use every day? And did you know they started with the military? Tell us what you learned!

Just like obscure, everyday phrases that everyone knows and no one understands, Low VA Rates knows that maneuvering a home loan can be confusing. We want to make the process as smooth as possible. For more information on how we can help you, please visit our website at www.lowvarates.com.



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