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The Battle - Military Expressions

Origin of Military Expressions

It is interesting to see that while all these expressions would be commonly used by both British and American Troops, during the War of 1812, the actual origins are from many other countries, cultures and time periods.


As an armed force, an ‘army’ takes its origins from the Latin verb Armare which means to equip with weapons. In old French this developed into armee to describe a force that had been armed with weapons, by 14th century England it had become Army.


In the 17th century ‘bayonet’ was the name given to a short dagger; a century later it referred to the stabbing instrument fixed to the muzzle of a Musket. It takes its name from the town of Bayonne, the site of its original manufacture.


The earliest use comes from the Italian ‘cantina’ which means a cellar, and it was in cellars serving wine where soldiers would gather to drink. When the ‘canteen’ moved out of the cellar it then meant a portable stall where food and drink were served, and eventually personal water bottles came to be called canteens.


When gunpowder arrived in medieval Europe from the Middle East & China, it was a valuable commodity which needed to be carefully measured and stored. ‘Carta’, a type of thick paper developed in Italy, was soon used to wrap a small charge of gunpowder, in what came to be known as a ‘cartoccio’. This passed into French as a ‘cartouche’ and into English as a ‘cartridge’. Later on lead shot was added to the cartridges.


In German and Dutch the verb ‘drillen’ was being used in the 16th century meaning turning in a circle. At the same time soldiers were being instructed in movements which enabled them to turn about in an orderly way as a group. When this passed into English, it lost its last 2 letters to become drill.


A number of British Cavalry regiments became know as ‘dragoons’ from the 17th century onwards. This was derived from the name given to armed mounted infantry serving in the French Army. These troops carried a carbine which they called a ‘dragon’ because it breathed fire like a dragon.


In the 18th century, artillery on land and sea used ‘grapeshot’ as an effective ammunition against formations of closely packed troops. Unlike a cannon ball, which was a single projectile, grapeshot comprised small balls of cast iron packed between iron plates and held together by a securing bolt. When fired, the grapeshot dispersed into a wide formation with devastating effects on the massed ranks against whom it was directed.


The shape of a ‘grenade’ gives a clue to the origin of the word in several languages, for this small, hand thrown missile. The first grenades entered military use in the 16th century and from the outset, their shape and the way they exploded into fragments closely resembled the Pomegranate fruit and the seeds that fill it. Known in old French as the ‘pumegrenate’ it evolved into the word ‘grenade’.

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