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The Language of the Sea

Via Corporal Seamus and LtCol Brader comes this article (don't know when or where was published) by Colonel Hammond about the language of the US Marine Corps.

I really liked it for it's pride and history...enjoy (now, it's 0700 hours and I've got to get to work):

Salty Language
by Col James W. Hammond Jr., USMC (Ret)

In the (not so) old Corps, the first time a 'boot' referred to a vertical partition as a 'wall' or said that he had spilled something on the 'floor,' he incurred the unmitigated wrath of the nearest drill instructor. To gain the attention of the miscreant, the DI would smash his swagger stick on the top of the boot's pith helmet accompanied by a very loud bit of enduring advice, 'That's 'bulkhead' [or 'deck']. If you draw the pay, you speak the language!'

Marines are 'Soldiers of the Sea,' and it is right and proper  that conversation be sprinkled with nautical expressions.  In 'The Leatherneck,' his introduction to 'Fix Bayonets,' the late Colonel John W. Thompson Jr., USMC (Ret) described the many men making up the 4th Marine Brigade about to see action at Belleau Wood in June 1918:  'And there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth.  Their speech was flavored with Navy words, and words culled from all the folk who live on the seas and ports where our war-ships go.'  He was describing Marine professionals who, like all professionals, have a language peculiar unto themselves.

A language is a living and evolving thing.  As we go to more strange and distant climes, some foreign words creep in. Some are transitory and don't survive. Marines still go to the 'head' to 'pump bilges,' although there was a generation or two who went to the benjo for the same thing. I've always liked the story of the world-traveler Marine sitting in a bar in Athens who politely summoned the waiter and ordered a beer with 'Garcon, iddy-wa, una botella de cerveza bitte.'

But over the years I have detected not just a lessening of the use of nautical terms among the naval services, but almost a complete lack of them.  This is more than 25 years ago when my son came home from the United States Naval Academy his Plebe Christmas.  He had been raised on 'deck,' 'bulkhead,' 'overhead,' 'ladder,' 'galley,' etc.  He called his Boy Scout equipment '782 gear,' but he was no longer using those descriptive terms because they weren't in use at the Academy.

After he graduated, I spent a dozen years in Annapolis on the staff of the Alumni Association of my alma mater.  I was appalled at the lubberly-ness of the staff, faculty and midshipmen at the Academy. Fortunately, the Marines on duty there kept the tradition of nautical language alive.  It must be paying off because every year the allotted 'boat spaces' for Marines on graduation are oversubscribed.

But I am not concerned with Navy per se, but rather our Corps of Marines.  I equate it to the reply an old gunnery sergeant gave to the lady who upon hearing the legend that the quatrefoil on the cover of Marine Officers' frame caps stems from days of sail when Marines in the 'fighting tops' could identify their officers on deck by the chalked cross on their caps and not fire on them, asked,

    'What about the Navy Officers?'

    'Who cared?' snapped the gunny.'

Language is both spoken and written.  'The Marines' Hymn' says, 'We are proud to claim the title of United States Marines.'  There are Army officers and soldiers, Navy officers and sailors, Air Force officers and airmen, but we are ALL Marines. That is why Marine is always written with a capital 'M.'

We must be careful not to allow our own professional culture to be corrupted by the words of other services.  The Army says 1600 (sixteen hundred) hours.  We say 1600 (sixteen hundred).  It is a small but subtle difference.  Many years ago at a large East Coast Marine base, an over zealous 'police sergeant' neatly painted on the 'deck' in front of a regimental headquarters building:


The commanding general, or 'CG,' came by and saw the offending sign. He dashed into headquarters, burst in the office of the commanding officer, or 'CO,' and began holding 'school-of-the-boat' (the most basic instruction one can give to the landlubber) on the colonel.

He said, 'In the Army, it's 1600 hours; in the Navy, it's 8 bells; in the Air Force, I think it is 'when Mickey's big hand is on 12 and his little hand is on 4,' but in the Corps, it is 1600.  Get that abomination corrected immediately!'...                                                           

...Most Marines knew the motto of our Corps before they went to boot camp, or they probably wouldn't have gone.  It is 'Semper Fidelis' - always faithful.  Shortened to 'Semper Fi,' it is a bond of respectful recognition between and among Marines.  One Marine greets another with it.  When they part company, each says to the other, 'Semper Fi.'   Informal memos or e-mails between Marines usually are signed 'Semper Fi' or just S/F.  But there used to be a darker side.  Used by Marines to members of the other services or civilians, 'Semper Fi, Mac,' said with a sneer, had a sinister connotation.

It could mean anything from 'I got mine; the hell with you!' to 'I did fine; how did you do?'

An old 'China Hand' once told me that on payday night in  Shanghai cabarets, it meant, 'You buy the fifth; my girl is drunk already!' I much prefer the version denoting mutual respect among a 'band of brothers' than the cynical version.

Some words and phrases have found their way into common American usage through the Marine Corps.  Some are of foreign origin.  'We have fought in every clime and place.' Others were Marine-coined.

The best example of a Marine-coined word in widespread use is 'gizmo.'

'Gung-ho' is of Chinese origin, via Col. Evans F. Carlson of the World War II Carlson's Raiders.  Going back several campaigns, we find that 'boondocks' comes from the Tagalog 'bundok' or mountain jungles of the Philippines. 'Honcho' came back from Korea and Japan.

Another word that is sacred to our Corps is 'Doc' - the corpsman who wear our uniform, joins with and cares for us in combat.  Many years ago I had a 'Stateside' battalion during the time that doctors were drafted for two years of service.  My battalion surgeon (billet title since he wasn't really a 'cutter') came to me with a complaint.  The young Marines were addressing him as 'Doc.'  Since he was a professional man, he felt he deserved the respect of being addressed as 'Doctor.'  I told him that evidently he was not ready to be addressed as 'Doc' inasmuch as that is the highest honor that a Marine can bestow upon a 'squid.'

The language door swings both ways.  We have allowed civilian language to corrupt our pure nautical expression.  While a landlubber may refer to a ship as 'it,' a true 'soldier of the sea' knows that a ship is a 'she.'  

Likewise, it is a real nautical bust, both orally and in writing, to precede the name of a ship with a definite article.  A ship is a distinct personality, and referring to the Lexington is as improper as referring to me as the Hammond .  She is Lexington .  Many readers will argue that the definite article is used in professional naval publications, and I invite their attention to the fact that those journals have professional editors and writers, not naval professionals.  Finally, one serves in .... not on a ship.  If it is the latter, you are in deep trouble.  To a precise reader or listener it conjures up the vision of your sitting on the keel of a capsized vessel.

How did this departure from salty language occur? I alluded to the traumatic change to the nautical nature of the Naval Academy , at least in my observation.  Emphasis was more on turning out graduates who could go on for advanced degrees.  'Techies' and their bastardization of English for computer talk followed.  This was compounded by flooding the faculty with academics holding advanced degrees from campuses of the '60s.  This sizeable group of civilians avoided being part of the naval culture.  Over the past quarter century, the leadership of half the naval service has eroded much of the base of salty-language usage.  If those at the top don't lead the way, it is a military axiom that those below won't follow.

But how did the decline of the use of salty language creep into our Corps?  Drill instructors still drill into recruits the use of 'deck,' 'bulkhead,' 'ladder,' etc., although perhaps with a less emphatic way of getting their attention then in the (not so) old Corps.

For one thing, more Marines are married these days, and many live ashore among the civilian community.  These Marines try to blend into the civilian community rather than flaunt their pride of being a Marine. Their use of salty language becomes one of the first casualties.

Even today it is a matter of pride to sport a regulation haircut, spit-shined shoes, proper civilian attire and, of course, salty language. It is gratifying when some stranger at a cocktail party says, 'You sound like you're a Marine.'

Another reason for the decline of salty language is that many young Marines are 'cool.'  Nautical talk is not cool, computer talk and jive talk are. Unlike the Navy with its many technicians, 'every Marine is a rifleman' and has the privilege of displaying pride in the language of his profession.  It is a privilege not available to others.

How can we restore this eroding tradition? Like everything else in the Corps, it begins at the top.  Senior officers should use salty language at every opportunity and hold school-of-the-boat on their subordinates who don't.  Top staff noncommissioned officers should do likewise.

Tradition is not something that can be ordered.  It must have solid roots to survive.  Marines should want to show that they are a different breed and be willing to demonstrate their uniqueness at every opportunity whether among other Marines or among civilians.  That's what it is about personal pride in being a Marine.

More than 50 years ago, during the Cherry Blossom Pageant in Washington, DC, 10 junior officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps were detailed as escorts for princesses from 48 states and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii .  Most of the Marines were strangers to each other.

At the end of the ceremonies a musical tribute to the gallant escorts of the lovely princesses was announced.  The band struck up a medley of 'The Caisson Song,' 'The Air Force Song,' 'Anchors Aweigh' and 'Semper Paratus.'  At the first note of 'The Marines' Hymn,' 10 Marine lieutenants scattered among the audience were on their feet as 20 heels clicked as one. An officer from another service paid them a high compliment.  In a stage whisper audible to all, he said, 'Those s.o.b.s!'

That's what it is all about - exhibiting your pride in your Corps every time you can.

About 30 years ago there was the tale of an old sergeant major who retired and had a nice job, although he was putting in long hours.  He had another problem as well, or at least his boss and co-workers thought so.  He still said 'deck,' 'bulkhead,' 'overhead,' etc.  The boss made him an appointment with the company psychiatrist.  The sergeant major arrived, and the doctor, who was of the Freudian school, directed him to lie on the couch.

    Doctor: 'Do you lead an active sex life?'


    SgtMaj: 'Sure!'


    Doctor: 'Tell me about it.'


    SgtMaj: ' What do you want to know?'


    Doctor: 'Your last affair, when was it?'


    SgtMaj: 'About 1950?'


    Doctor: 'You call that active?'


    SgtMaj, looking at his watch: 'It's only 2115 now!'

Draw the pay; speak the language.

Semper Fi.

[Col Hammond enlisted in the Corps in 1946, was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1947 and was commissioned as an infantry officer in 1951.  He commanded an infantry platoon and company, an artillery battery and battalion, an infantry battalion (2/4) in combat (RVN).  He was wounded in action during the Korean War and twice wounded in the Vietnam War.  He is the author of more than 50 professional articles in a wide variety of professional publications, including Marine Corps Gazette, Naval Institute Proceedings, The Hook and others.  He was managing editor and then editor-publisher for Gazette from 1964 to 1966 and in retirement was editor of the U. S. Naval Academy Alumni Association's monthly magazine, Shipmate. He has written two books: 'Poison Gas - The Myths Versus Reality' and 'The Treaty Navy - The Story of the U. S. Naval Service Between the World Wars'. Colonel and Mrs. Hammond make their home in Reno , but can be found in Annapolis during football season.]