What Are Some Military Sayings and Phrases You've Probably Used in Conversation?

By Sydney Johnson

United States military culture is one of uniformity, efficiency and comaraderie. In many ways, parts of the military way of life have seamlessly come over to the civilian world. From wearing T-shirts to phrases we say daily, U.S. culture has undeniably been influenced by the Armed Forces.

Here are some military sayings and quotes that started in the Armed Forces that are now commonplace in American conversation.

“On the Front Lines”

This phrase is rooted in military history. The “front line” in military context is literally the first row of an army approaching. They are the first to feel the brunt of the battle, which is why many have used the term to refer to those at the front end of the “fight” against coronavirus.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a common phrase was “front-line worker.” This referred to hospital staff and other essential workers that kept the country running, particularly at the onset of the pandemic when most people stayed at home and many businesses were shut down.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Beaux Hebert

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Toula Farnsworth, a 354th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron medical technician, takes a simulated patient’s temperature while practicing administering a COVID-19 test in January 2021 on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Farnsworth is one of the many military medical personnel “on the frontlines” of the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, the National Guard was mobilized to assist in the fight against the virus by working at testing locations, distributing equipment and assisting local authorities. Throughout the pandemic, additional military medical professionals have been deployed to help support local authorities and other frontline workers and care for patients.

“No Man’s Land”

The phrase “no man’s land” refers to the empty region between opposing army trenches on the battlefield. If a soldier was caught in the middle, it meant he was vulnerable and was caught in “no man’s land.”

Photo credit Library of Congress

Print of “No man’s land” by Lucien Jonas, 1927.

Although popularized during World War I, the phrase “no man’s land” dates back to 14th century England. It was originally used on maps to indicate burial grounds.

Today, the term is used colloquially for people who are wandering or are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Got Your Six”

Have you ever pointed something out to a friend and said, “Look over there at your nine o’clock.” Essentially, this way of giving directions uses the face of a clock to explain relative positioning, and so does the popular expression “got your six.”

Rooted in the military’s use of the organization of a clock-face to inform position and location, if the person you are talking to is the center of the clock, their 6 o’clock is behind them; so if you “have their six,” essentially, you have their back. The phrase was originally used by military pilots during World War I but is commonly used amongst all military personnel now.

“On the Double”

Telling someone to do something “on the double” is the same as telling someone to double their speed with the task they’re doing.

The military origin of this phrase is quite literal and refers to marching. In a military formation, marching needs to be done with extreme precision and at a certain rhythm. All service members in formation need to march in unison, so when a unit receives orders to march in “double time,” they are being instructed to all increase the speed of their steps and double their speed.

“Balls to the Wall”

While this phrase might make you chuckle, the popular saying actually refers to military aircraft. In older aircraft, a pilot’s control levers had spheres – or, balls – at the end of them. When pilots flew at top speed, they would push on the levers as far as they could go. The “balls” would then be oriented toward the “wall” of the aircraft, hence the phrase “balls to the wall.”

Photo credit (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez

An Air Force pilot holds onto the throttle in preparation for take-off. Older aircraft throttles had balls on them, so when they needed to go full-speed, they would push them to the “wall” of the cockpit, hence the popular idiom, “balls to the wall.”

In popular culture, the phrase is typically used when someone or a group is giving their maximum effort and not holding back.

“Bite the Bullet”

During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides of the fight used the term “bite the bullet,” which is believed to have been a means to endure pain without making noise. Allegedly, soldiers would quite literally bite down on a bullet to keep from making noise while undergoing a painful procedure on the battlefield.

However, there is a theory that it didn’t exactly originate in the military, and that it may have been a British saying first. In Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (published in 1796), the same idea is mentioned when defining “nightingale.” He states, for a soldier, “It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.”

Amongst civilians, the phrase now means to tackle something difficult and brace yourself for whatever consequences come with that action. For example, if you’re hesitant about having a tough conversation, someone may tell you to just “bite the bullet” and have the hard talk. It’s a way of telling someone to take whatever comes with something they need to do.

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