Don’t Say That! Military Lingo in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic #military

Today I’m going to talk about words related to military operations for which I had to find alternatives for my stories. First, let me wish everyone in the USA a happy and meaningful Memorial Day! I come from and married into a military family. My dad served in WWII in the U.S. Army on Guadalcanal and my brothers and oldest sister all served in various military branches. My husband’s side included officers who served in the army back to WWI and up to the present day. Trust me when I say I appreciate our armed forces and everyone who serves/served, including their spouses and families. Thank you all!

Having been surrounded by military terms for the majority of my life, I was surprised at how many “common” words didn’t exist in English until after the 18th century. I’ll dig into a few of the following since I came across so many in writing my American Revolution era stories: camp followers, camp site, checkpoint, commandeered, communiques, flagpole, footlocker, gunfire, home front, martial law, mess hall, ports of call, saboteur, seagoing, and spoiling for action.

So let’s start with the first one since it really did floor me. I mean, what else would you call someone who follows an army during war? George Washington wrote in his letters about the women who followed the army, providing services like washing and mending clothes in exchange for food and shelter. But they were not actually referred to as “camp-followers” until 1810, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)., and that was in “The proceedings of the General Court Martial, on the trial of Edward Poole, camp follower.” They weren’t even referring to the women and children trailing after the army as I intended, so what’s up with that? So be it, right?

Another one that caught me off guard was “checkpoint.” The OED lists it as a submeaning of “check” as in “(b) a place (entrance, turnstile, barrier, etc.) where the movement of traffic, pedestrians, etc., is checked; a control-point; check-post = check-point.” But there’s no date associated with its usage, so I went to and they gave the year it was first recorded as 1935-40. Way, way, way after my 1782-3 stories, wouldn’t you say? So I just used something similar to “the sentry stopped them to check their pass” instead of “they were stopped at the checkpoint.” I think usage changes to make the statements more concise and thus take less time to say. Which is why we have such a high frequency of acronyms and text-speak today. Do you agree with me?

“Flagpole” also surprised me. I mean, what else do you call the pole you hang the flag on? While the OED calls “flag-pole” a combining form without a origin date, again I found at that it was first recorded in 1880-85. A century after my story time. Sigh. But they also suggested a synonym, “flagstaff” which the OED confirms I could use since it was first used in English in 1613 as “flag-staffe” and in 1790 as “flag-staff.” At least I had a similar word to add to my collection, right?

I know, I know. I’m being rather picky about word choices. But again, if the concept behind the word wasn’t common then my characters wouldn’t be thinking about them in those terms. I want my characters to be as real and true to the time period as the historical facts I weave through my tales. Seriously, I think doing so adds to the flavor of the times in my stories to give them the ring of authenticity I’m striving for.

Next time I’ll talk about generic setting words. Happy reading!


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Amy's ChoiceWhen Amy Abernathy’s childhood sweetheart, Benjamin Hanson, leaves to fight in the American War for Independence without a word of goodbye, Amy picks up the pieces of her heart and chooses independence. When Benjamin returns unexpectedly, Amy flees to the country to help her pregnant sister and protect her heart.

Benjamin Hanson knows he hurt Amy, but he also knows he can make it up to her after he completes his mission. Then he learns that Amy has been captured by renegade soldiers. Now Benjamin faces his own choice: free the sassy yet obstinate woman he’s never stopped loving or protect Charles Town from the vengeful British occupation.

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