Learned Vol. 2, Issue 21
My internet provider came 'round to upgrade my service the other day. Naturally, ever since then, my wi-fi has been completely FUBAR'd. I'm not quite sure where the SNAFU is, but I'm sure it'll be a while getting sorted out.
In the meantime, let's talk about military acronyms. Military units and branches tend to use a lot of jargon. It's part of the job. They need to have their planning and logistics as standardized as possible. This helps reduce the amount of time and money needed to drill new troops and create new tactics. In fact, the most famous piece of jargon to come out of the military is, arguably, SOP, or, Standard Operating Procedure.
A lot of jargon is useful and helps make units more efficient. But, use too much jargon, and communication becomes bloated and overly complicated. Which means that it is, like all things military, ripe for parody and appropriation by the troops who have to use it. In this case, FUBAR and SNAFU.
SNAFU is the older of the pair. It stands for variations on Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. It has a close relative in SUSFU (Situation Usual, Still Fucked Up); both phrases come from the September 1941 Issue of American Notes and Queries (which I can't find online, unfortunately, so can't verify this) but there's at least some anecdotal evidence to suggest how it came into being.
All military communications during the beginning stages of WWII were scrambled into code. They had to be transcribed by the receiving soldiers and then handed off to different soldiers for de-scrambling. One pair of soldiers, bored with receiving duty, began translating all the weird non-words into acronyms, one of which was snafu...
SNAFU has since gone on to be one of the most popular words in military parlance, most likely due to a series of Private Snafu cartoons produced by the US Army Signal Corps to entertain the troops. It has since been featured as part of military life in several movies about WWII, my personal favorite being this scene from Memphis Belle:
FUBAR, on the other hand, may be a backronym - a word that acquired a defining set of words long after the word had acquired general use. In this case, there's some evidence to show that the German word fuchtbar (terrible) was transposed into English as foobar, which then became foobar, which then became Fucked Up Beyond All Repair (although, like SNAFU, there are several similar but different phrases in use).
FUBAR also didn't enter the lexicon until a few years after SNAFU; the first recorded use of it (as always, first recorded just means the first time someone wrote it down and it was probably in use long before that) was in 1944 in the Yank Army Weekly. But, no matter when it entered the language, it's definitely become a part of the language, moving from military use to daily life among certain sets.
And that's the thing about jargon. By definition, jargon is specialized words or phrases used by professionals in distinct settings. But, language is fluid. Words rarely stay in the time and place that created them. Instead, they shift and evolve and acquire new users and uses. Which brings me back to my distinct, non-professional, non-military situation: my wi-fi is still FUBAR. It keeps disconnecting me at random times for no apparent reason. The contractor will be out to fix it sometime next week. Situation Normal...
(adj, transitive verb)
fu·bar | \ ˈfü-ˌbär \
: thoroughly confused, disordered, damaged or ruined
: to break or severely damage (something) : to make a mess of (something) —usually used in passive constructions
(noun, adj, transitive verb)
sna·fu | \ sna-ˈfü , ˈsna-ˌfü\
: a situation marked by errors or confusion
: an error causing such a situation
: snarled or stalled in confusion
: to bring into a state of confusion
Notable Events of the Year 1941:
You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:
This week’s sidetrack is a little different. Pioneering rock group Sleater-Kinney has a new record out and I’ve been reading reviews in anticipation. But, what got my attention was this review in Slate that mentioned that the title of the record - The Center Won’t Hold - comes from the poem, The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats (1919).
The same review mentioned that the Roots seminal album Things Fall Apart also takes its name from The Second Coming; I wrote a few weeks ago about album titles taken from literature, so I don’t want to do that again. Instead, here’s The Second Coming, in its entirety:
W. B. Yeats - 1865-1939
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Next Time: Curiosity and cats. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.