British Military Terms and Soldier Slang

British Colonial Military Terms and Soldier Slang

Note: Many British military slang words had their origin in India and spread from there throughout the Empire. In this list, I put those Indian words and phrases that were Anglicized and that I think native Indians would not have used, such as pukka sahib.  In the Indian list, I put words that I think might have been used by either British or Indians or words that were specific to India and Afghanistan.  This is a purely subjective placement and very likely full of errors. I could put certain words in both lists, but that, too, would likely be wrong, and placing them in only one list requires less effort from me.

Check my Great War and WW2 Glossaries for later words.

For general British-to-American translations, I also recommend:  The Septic’s Companion: A British Slang Dictionary

ague Any fever, such as malaria, that recurs at regular intervals (from Medieval Latin febris acuta, literally, sharp fever)

ammunitions

Boots (later usage)

beef, beer, and lust

What British civilians thought British soldiers were too full of.

beer, bum, and bacca Pleasures of the sailor's life, circa 1870, "bacca" being tobacco.
black death The plague. A virulent contagious bacteria often found in rats. Humans can get the disease from fleas.
black water fever A type of African malaria that causes anemia and brown or black urine due to the destruction of red blood cells.
blimey From Gorblimey!, meaning "God blind me"
blue jacket British sailor
BOR British Other Ranks, non-officers
brew Tea
brevet A temporary higher rank, for example, a captain being a brevet colonel.  It was not unusual for British colonial officers on loan to another regiment to be temporarily classed as a higher rank in that regiment but to paid for the lesser rank of their actual regiment. (Old French, diminutive of brief letter)
brollly Umbrella, circa 1873

bun strangler

Non-drinker

caravan Travelers on a journey through hostile regions (Italian caravana, from Persian karwan).
catarrh An inflammation of the nose and air passages that produces drainage (from Greek katarrhein to flow down).

char

Tea.  (Hindustani char)

charpoy

A bed, frame strung with tapes or light rope (Hindustani carpai)

cinematrograph Early motion pictures c. 1900. Also known as viagraph or bioscope.
chee-chee Half-caste, mixed race of British and Indian. Also the sing-song accent of same, from the early influence of Welsh missionaries.
cheroot Cigar (from Tamil, curuttu, roll. [About 1679])
cholera belt A body wrapping of flannel worn to supposedly prevent cholera. Used in India until about 1920.
chota peg Small drink, a gin and tonic
chota wallah Little guy
class regiment Indian Army regiment whose members were all recruited from one ethnic group such as Sikhs, Gurkhas, etc.

clobber

Uniform, clothing

college

Prison (as in, "I've been to college.")

consumption Pulmonary tuberculosis or any other wasting-away disease that "consumed" its victims.
croaker A dying person, a corpse, or someone who has given up.
cushy Easy (Hindi khush pleasant, from Persian khush [1915]

daisy-roots

Boots

dekko To take a look (Hindi, deckna, to look)
dhobi  wallah Indian who did the washing

dhoolie wallah

Indian dhoolie carrier

D. O. British District Officer
doggo To lie doggo, to hide. Probably from "dog" [1893]
donkey walloper Infantry disparaging term for cavalry
dyspepsia Indigestion (Latin, from Greek, from dys- + pepsis digestion )
enteric fever Typhoid fever
Fishing Fleet Unmarried British women sent to India each year by their parents during the cool weather to find  husbands.
fossick To search for gold or gemstones typically by picking over abandoned workings (Australian and New Zealand)
galloper Officer used by commanders to carry messages. 
Gardner Gun (machine gun) A one- to five-barreled machine gun used by the British Army from 1880. Operated by turning a crank which loaded and fired each barrel in sequence.
General Services Enlistment Act One of the causes of the Indian Mutiny. It required Indian troops in British service to to go overseas, if required. Hindus would break caste if they did so. 

graft

Work

god wallah Priest or chaplain
goolie Testicle, late 19th century (Hindi gooli, a pellet)
grippe Influenza (from French, seizure)

havelock

Cloth cap cover that hung on the back to  protect the neck from sunlight (named after Sir Henry Havelock)

heliograph

Communication device using mirrors to flash sunlight.

hot or cold Ways of attacking. By shooting (hot) or by bayonet (cold);
Imperial Yeomanry British volunteer cavalry force recruited from locals for the Boer war. Little or no training, but they had much enthusiasm.

kip

Bed (Danish kippecheap tavern)

liberty-men Sailors on shore leave.
loot Plunder (Hindi lut  [c.1788])
malaria A disease transmitted by mosquitoes that causes periodic severe attacks of chills and fever, thought at one time to be caused by miasma (Italian [1740], from mala aria, bad air)
matlow Self-adopted name of British sailors (blue-jackets)[1880](from French matelot, sailor)
Maxim Gun British - .303 caliber. Recoil-operated machine gun. First used in Matabele war of 1893-94. Bought and copied by almost all nations, although often under other names. The standard MG during the Great War. Named after the British (American-born) inventor, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim.
miasma A heavy vapor emanation or atmosphere believed to cause malaria or other diseases common in swampy areas (Greek, defilement, from miainein to pollute [1665])
murrain A plague that infects domestic animals (from Latin mori, to die)
Mussulman A Moslem or Muslim (Turkish müslüman, Persian musulman, modification of Arabic muslim)
nappy wallach Barber
Nordenfelt Gun Although Nordenfelt produced other types of guns, when used in a colonial setting the term usually refers to a multi-barreled machine gun (2 to 10 barrels) operated by a lever which was moved back and forth. First used in the 1880's.

old sweat

Veteran

on the cot

Changing one's ways

on the peg

Under arrest

paddy Rice field (Malay padi [1623])
P. and O. Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company. The main line for British travelers to India and the East
pannier Donkey load. A large basket or container carried on the back of an animal or on the shoulders of a person (13th century, Latin, panis, bread

piquet

A small guard post with about 12 men or less.

Per mare, per terram "By land, by sea", motto of the Royal Marines. AKA "Poor Mary on the terrace"

pith helmet

Sun helmet made of cloth-covered cork.

Pom or Pommie Derisive Australian soldier's term for British officers or British men in general (from pomade - hair dressing)
poodle-faker A man who spent too much time in the society of women, engaging in such activates as tea parties, balls, etc.

pop-wallah

Non-alcohol drinker, a drinker of soda pop

pukka Genuine, authentic, first-class (Hindi pakka cooked, ripe, solid, from Sanskrit pakva)
pukka sahib Excellent fellow (used for Europeans only)

puggaree

Muslin cloth wrapped around a pith helmet ( Hindi pagri turban)

punk Inferior, as in "played a punk game", "feeling punk" (ill) (1896)
punkah wallah Indian employed to work a fan, usually by a string attached to their toe or thumb.

pusher

Girl friend

Queen's shilling, the

Bounty paid to a new recruit for joining the army.

R.M.L.I. Royal Marine Light Infantry

rooky

New recruit

sawney Scotsman (circa 1700 on)

shako

Stiff, tall military hat (French, from Hungarian csákó)

shrapnel Anti-personnel shell that exploded in the air and scattered small lead balls. Also, later on, any piece of metal from any type shell. (After the inventor, Henry Shrapnel [1806])

skof

Food

sleeping sickness A serious disease transmitted by tsetse flies, common in much of tropical Africa. Sleeping sickness saved parts of Africa from being settled by Europeans in the 19th century because it killed their cattle and horses.

slingers

Hard tack and coffee

snotty Midshipman [Royal Navy]

spyglass

Telescope

stoppages Money deducted from a soldier's pay ("stopped") as a punishment

subaltern

A junior officer in the British army, just below lieutenant.

swaddy

Soldier.

Ticker

Soldier who owned his own personal watch (early usage)

tiffin Lunch or snack (obsolete English tiff to eat between meals)
to fire into the brown Originally referred to hunters firing into a covey of game birds without aiming at any particular bird, but was later used for soldiers firing into a charging mass of natives.

topee

Helmet (Hindi topi)

Tommy Tommy Atkins. Name for the British common soldier
vapors A Victorian belief that emanations from bodily organs (such as the stomach) could affect the physical and mental condition of people, especially women. Vapors were often blamed for women fainting, although fashions that included binding women's bodies so tight that they could barely breathe would seem to be a more likely cause.

VC

The Victoria Cross, the highest British medal

vedettes Mounted sentries
wad Cake
wallah Person associated with an activity--for example, god wallah for priest
wizard Excellent, as in "a wizard time"
wet Tea, as in, "have a wet", 
wog Derogatory term for Indians or Arabs. Sometimes also Wiley Oriental Gentleman or Westernized Oriental Gentleman (Origin uncertain. Either Westernized Oriental Gentleman or from Golliwogg, a living black doll in children's books by the American writer Bertha Upton.)
yellow fever A disease transmitted by mosquitoes that causes jaundice, among many other symptoms
yellow jack Yellow fever

 

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