Can You Decode These WWII Slang Words?


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: Wiki Commons

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:

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.


Job One:

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. "



"Ack" was the phonetic sound for "a" among British signalmen. "Ack-ack" caught on as a quick way to say "anti-aircraft" fire.


Cash in your chips:

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.


Bunk lizard:

A bed in a barracks is traditionally called a bunk. Sometimes navy people will call their bunk "my rack."


Corner turner:

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.


Shell shock:

"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).


Big wheel:

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.


Beat your gums:

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.)."


Army strawberries:

Prunes, we suppose, are a lot easier to can and ship than strawberries. Hence this ironic name for an unpopular substitute.


Bedpan commando:

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.


Browned off:

"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.



This is short for a German word for "pilot warding-off cannon," or "Fliegerabwehrkanone." In other words, it was a pretty necessary abbreviation!



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.


Landing gear:

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.



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.


Mickey Mouse movie:

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.


Ninety-day wonder:

Specifically, this term implied that a lieutenant only had a 90-day course of training, stateside, before commanding troops in the field.


Behavior report:

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.


Sugar report:

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.


Ash can:

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.



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 "bogey" wasn't necessarily hostile, just unidentified. Still, it was viewed as potentially hostile until proven otherwise.


Brag rags:

This is generally Navy slang. The flags were often hung from the conning tower, and as the name suggests, were a source of pride.


Cigarette deck:

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.


The Conn:

"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.



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.



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."


Armored cow:

Slang terms for military food are never flattering. "Armored cow," also known as "armored heifer," isn't particularly bad, as these things go.


Snap your cap:

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.



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.


Bust someone's chops:

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."



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.



A "beef" can just be verbal, or it can turn physical. You'll occasionally still hear this one today.


Cook with gas:

Nowadays, we most often use this phrase with "now," suggesting a breakthrough or sudden improvement. "You're cooking with gas now!"


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