Can You Decode These WWII Slang Words?

By: Torrance Grey
Estimated Completion Time
3 min
Can You Decode These WWII Slang Words?
Image: ikimedia

About This Quiz

World War II was the largest and deadliest conflict in human history, and understandably, it's still studied to this day. Historians are still investigating its causes and its lingering effects, its weapons and technology, the art and fiction it inspired. Some people, though, aren't interested in all that. They're interested in the slang. 

Don't laugh: the Second World War gave rise to quite a bit of new lingo, spoken by soldiers in trenches, sailors in submarines and flight crews in bombers. A shared language creates a common bond, and that's rarely so important as in time of war. Some of the slang of WWII is with us to this day: you'll hear about someone having a "beef" with a co-worker, or getting his "chops busted." Other terms, like "lettuce," have become quite obscure. (We can't tell you what it means here; it'd be a spoiler.) 

The Greatest Generation is dying out; the people who created and used these slang terms in their early years will no longer be among us in another decade or so. So, whether you're a Millennial, Generation X or a Boomer, see how prepared you are to ensure that the slang of WWII lives on. Are you ready? Let's do this!

Bug juice:
Beer.
Insect repellent.
This one's still in regular use today, if online dictionaries of Afghanistan- and Iraq-war slang are to be believed. Theaters of war change, weapons change, technology changes... but bugs are universal.
Lemonade.
Sweat.

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Job One:
The boss.
First day in the service.
Reveille.
The top priority.
You don't hear this much anymore in day-to-day life. However, Ford used it in the 1980s as part of an ad slogan: "Quality Is Job One. "

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Ack-ack:
Anti-aircraft fire.
"Ack" was the phonetic sound for "a" among British signalmen. "Ack-ack" caught on as a quick way to say "anti-aircraft" fire.
An admiral.
A foreign language.
A machine gun.

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Cash in your chips:
To die.
This one made its way into civilian life and really hasn't left us. It comes from the way a gambler cashes in his chips when leaving a game.
To get paid.
To re-enlist.
To shop at the commissary.

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Bunk lizard:
Boot(s).
Unidentified meat in rations.
A soldier who is fond of bed.
A bed in a barracks is traditionally called a bunk. Sometimes navy people will call their bunk "my rack."
Sand in one's sheets.

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Corner turner:
Cheating girlfriend.
Deserter.
We're not sure about the provenance of this one. It seems likely that it refers to a soldier sneaking around a corner and just disappearing.
Obsessively-neat bedmaker.
Scout.

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Shell shock:
A hard landing.
Jetlag.
Post-traumatic stress from battle.
"Shell shock" takes its name from shells, or artillery weapons. Dealing with these aerial bombardments was especially hard on soldiers, leading to this 20th-century term (that might have gotten its start in WWI).
Seasickness.

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Big wheel:
A French cheese.
A person of authority.
Before it was a durable tricycle for toddlers, "big wheel" meant any important person. It's similar to "big cheese," so sorry if "French cheese" confused you.
A person constantly in transit.
A paddle-wheel steamer refitted as a warship.

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Beat your gums:
Floss.
Get dental work.
Eat a lot.
Talk a lot.
This bit of WWII slang had staying power. You'll still hear it nowadays, often with an indirect object: "We spent a lot of time beating our gums about (the problem, the situation, etc.)."

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Army strawberries:
Cigarettes.
Foot rashes.
Prunes.
Prunes, we suppose, are a lot easier to can and ship than strawberries. Hence this ironic name for an unpopular substitute.
Women of the WAAC.

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Bedpan commando:
Corpsman (medic).
Is it just us, or is a lot of WWII slang kind of insulting, in a dismissive way? Corpsmen, like nurses, did essentially work in the war.
Injured soldier.
Army nurse.
Ambulance driver.

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Browned off:
Dismissed.
Irritated.
"Browned off" and its close cousin "brassed off" both mean seriously annoyed. "Brassed Off" was revived as the title of a 1996 movie with Pete Postlethwaite and Ewan McGregor.
Reassigned.
Tanned.

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Flak:
Anti-aircraft fire.
This is short for a German word for "pilot warding-off cannon," or "Fliegerabwehrkanone." In other words, it was a pretty necessary abbreviation!
A rank between corporal and sergeant.
Field rations.
Statement to reporters.

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Kite:
Airplane.
There's not a lot of similarity between a kite - a simple airfoil - and an airplane, powered by engines. But apparently it got the point across. Nowadays, the slang term "kite" usually means a letter received in prison, or one secretly passed from prisoner to prisoner.
Dead body.
Paratrooper.
Falcon of war.

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Landing gear:
Any equipment used by ground crew.
Legs.
You can imagine that this was applied at time to women. But probably also to paratroopers: at time of landing, their legs really do serve that purpose.
A plane not cleared to fly.
One's rucksack.

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Penguin:
Air Force airman who didn't fly.
The penguin is a flightless bird, so it's easy to see where this one came from. "Wing wiper" was also applied to ground crew that didn't fly.
Dress uniform.
Cold-weather flight suit.
A closed-top Jeep.

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Mickey Mouse movie:
Filmed USO show.
Educational film on hygiene.
Why was hygiene so important? Because in the field, during wartime, infections like trench foot could mean the difference between a disabled soldier and one who could fight.
Movie that breaks in the projector halfway through.
"welcome to the Army" film shown at induction.

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Ninety-day wonder:
Particularly old canned rations.
An inexperienced lieutenant.
Specifically, this term implied that a lieutenant only had a 90-day course of training, stateside, before commanding troops in the field.
A frequently-injured soldier.
A pilot who could fly missions day after day without tiring.

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Behavior report:
Debriefing after a mission.
Conversation with a chaplain.
Letter home to a girl.
Apparently this comes from the idea that one's girl, back at home, was concerned with how her boyfriend was acting while half a world away. Behavior while on leave would have been especially of concern.
Excess of beer cans in the barracks trash.

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Sugar report:
A good review from a CO.
Letter from a girl back home.
Presumably these letters were usually filled with cheering news from the hometown, endearments, etc. Not to be confused with a "Dear John," which was a long-distance breakup letter.
A meal schedule.
A "Mission Accomplished" banner.

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Ash can:
Depth charge.
An "ash can," or depth charge, is an explosive set to explode at a certain depth under the water. It was commonly used against submarines.
Dirty/slovenly barracks.
Kitchen of the commissary.
Turret of a machine gun.

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Betty:
A Navy nurse.
A Japanese bomber or fighter plane.
We wonder what someone named "Betty" did to have her name repurposed in this unflattering way! Later, a "bouncing Betty" would be a dangerous grenade used in the Vietnam War.
A British submarine.
A type of dessert with apple.

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Bogey:
Newly-enlisted infantryman.
Empty submarine.
To completely lose a game of poker.
An unidentified aircraft.
A "bogey" wasn't necessarily hostile, just unidentified. Still, it was viewed as potentially hostile until proven otherwise.

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Brag rags:
Bloody bandages.
Dirty socks.
Copies of the Stars&Stripes newspaper.
Miniature Japanese flags representing the number of boats sunk or planes shot down.
This is generally Navy slang. The flags were often hung from the conning tower, and as the name suggests, were a source of pride.

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Cigarette deck:
A full pack of cigarettes.
A variation of poker.
A commander's desk.
An open, railed deck on a submarine's bridge.
This was the nickname for a deck atop a U.S. Navy submarine. It doesn't take much imagination to guess how it got this name.

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The Conn:
The authority to steer a ship.
"You've got the Conn" is a common thing a captain would say to his executive officer when handing off immediate control. Of course, the captain is always ultimately in charge, but can't be on the bridge or giving orders 24 hours a day.
The radio shack.
A radio signalman.
Secret battle plans.

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Fish:
Any enlisted navy man.
Submarine.
Rescue diver.
Torpedo.
Where this term came from is fairly obvious. Not only are torpedos used underwater, but from the side they resemble the casual drawing of a fish with a short finned tail that everyone can do.

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D-Day:
Day of Departure.
Though "D-Day" is now overwhelmingly associated with the commencement of the Normandy operation, it used to be more generic. More specific is "H-Hour," the time at which an operation will begin. In that one, the "H" seems to be recursive, only referring to "hour."
Day of Destruction.
Day of Deliverance
Day of Decommissioning.

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Armored cow:
Canned milk.
Slang terms for military food are never flattering. "Armored cow," also known as "armored heifer," isn't particularly bad, as these things go.
Chipped beef.
A desk job.
A Sherman tank.

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Snap your cap:
To get promoted.
To get angry or upset.
This is an old term meaning "to get angry." It's one of the ones that have almost completely died out, possibly because hat-wearing fell by the wayside, too.
To flirt.
To get moving.

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Lettuce:
Brand new recruits.
Money.
There wasn't a whole lot of "lettuce" to be made enlisting in the armed services. That had to wait until you got back home and got a civilian job.
News.
Orders.

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Bust someone's chops:
To enjoy your food.
To lecture or yell at someone.
Here's another one that's lasted into the present day. To demote wasn't too far off: Officers worried that a big enough screwup would get them "busted back down to private."
To demote someone.
To promote someone.

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Ace:
Expert or superior performer.
When it refers to a pilot, this adjective becomes a noun: "a flying ace." But you can be an "ace (noun)" in many other fields, as well.
Dangerous mission.
Repeating rifle.
Submarine commander.

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Beef:
A disagreement.
A "beef" can just be verbal, or it can turn physical. You'll occasionally still hear this one today.
A German.
An artilleryman.
Texturized soy protein in rations.

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Cook with gas:
To be accomplished or doing something really well.
Nowadays, we most often use this phrase with "now," suggesting a breakthrough or sudden improvement. "You're cooking with gas now!"
To handle dangerous ordnance.
To get drunk.
To cook using alcohol.

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