Tag Archives: Iraq

How the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped military slang

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)

A jinglytruck (British English)/jingle truck (American English) in Afghanistan. (Photo: Kurt Clark via Flickr)


Here’s a post from The Big Show’s Leo Hornak.

How do you feel about doing armourbarma on the way to Butlins? Or getting a craphat to check for Terry in a jinglytruck?

Unless you’re a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, you’re probably totally confused.

The British Army has a centuries-long tradition of picking up slang terms from the many countries in which it serves, both within the British empire and from other places around the world. And while the British Army lowered the flag at its last base in Afghanistan, the country has left its own mark on British military language and culture.

So in the above example, armourbarma is a method of checking for IEDs; Butlins was the name given to Camp Bastion, the army’s main Afghan base; craphats are members of a rival unit; and a jinglytruck is a highly decorated Afghan vehicle.

And Terry? Terry is short for the enemy — Mr. “Terry” Taliban, of course.

If some of those names sound oddly light-hearted, writer Patrick Hennessy, a former army captain, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. “The British Army has a particular tradition of black humor,” he says. “It’s much easier to fight someone if they are an object of ridicule than if they are an object of fear. The tendency towards something like ‘Terry’ is not intended to humanize the enemy — quite often the opposite.”

Terry has overtones of Jerry, the sarcastic name British soldiers used for German forces during the world wars. Giving a foreign enemy a banal, suburban British name helped Brits — who were similarly, maybe ironically, nicknamed “Tommies” during World War I — psychologically cut their opponents down to size.

Hennessy says he still has a fondness for Terry, at least as a name if not as an adversary. “There’s a famous comedian called Terry Thomas [in Britain] who was a bit of a ridiculous clown,” he explains. “I always loved the fact that the nickname we came up with was more ridiculous than threatening.”

Army jargon still carries the legacy of the British empire with it. Soldiers still refer to washing as “dhobi,” derived from the Hindi word for laundry. Something obtained for free is said to be “bukshee,” meaning “bribe” in Urdu and Hindi.

These words are looked on with pride as a sign of military heritage and history. Hennessy believes that tradition will carry over to include the slang of the Afghan war. “We worked very closely with the Afghan National Army, and a lot of the terms — like kandak for a battalion, or tolai for a company — [have been included],” he says. “I’m sure that in a hundred years time, sergeants on the drill square at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst will still be talking about kandaks to show their historical credibility.”

[Patrick Cox adds: We invited American vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to tell us their favorite slang terms. Listen to the audio above for some of the cleaner responses.

To join The World’s SMS community of veterans, text “RETURN” to 69866]


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Telling real stories in translation


A guest post from Aaron Schachter.

Here’s a dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.

Save for the linguistically-talented few — the late, great Anthony Shadid being among the most renowned — most foreign correspondents work in countries where we don’t know the language, let alone local customs, organizations or personalities.

So “fixers” and interpreters, often the same person, are vital to the work we do. Aside from a passing voice on the radio, you’d likely never know they exist.

I spent eight years reporting from the Middle East with the help of fixers. They translated interviews for me from Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Turkish. But just as importantly, they guided me through cultures that I couldn’t possibly have understood without their help.

Ayub Nuri (pictured above with Aaron Schachter in 2003) was one of the most memorable — and the most fun.

I can’t remember our first meeting for sure, but it must have been in the bustling lobby of Baghdad’s Sheraton hotel. The towering hotel was trendy in the 1980s, but much less so by the time foreign journalists, US military types, NGO workers and dignitaries rolled in after the 2003 invasion. It turned out the hotel had been disowned by the Sheraton chain soon after the 1991 Gulf War — yet it still sported all the logos, including Sheraton placemats in the lobby cafe.

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


Ayub looked to be about 20 years old. He was giggly and impish; I wasn’t in the mood for giggly and impish. It was July in Baghdad, meaning the temperature tops 100 degrees in the shade. I was sweating more or less nonstop, even in my supposedly air-conditioned hotel room.

And I was fairly terrified to be in a war zone.

It was not an auspicious way to begin my six weeks in Iraq.

But the thing about being anxious at work is that it helps to work with someone giggly and impish, especially someone like Ayub, who also possesses an incredible command of history and culture — not to mention a duffel bag full of Agatha Christie novels.

Like the soldiers we often covered, a good amount of journalists’ time in Iraq was spent waiting. Or travelling somewhere to wait. It turns out the novels of Agatha Christie are a good antidote to the boredom.

Ayub helped me understand how greetings are done in Iraq; the proper way to conduct myself in a restaurant — grab table, beeline for the bathroom to wash hands, then eat communally; and about a culture traumatized by life under a despotic ruler. When you have to keep your mouth shut and disguise your feelings for decades, it isn’t natural to open up when a foreign reporter shoves a microphone in your face. Coming from a culture of confession like the US — or Israel, where I was living — there was quite a culture shock.

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Ayub was that he could talk himself into or out of any situation in a half dozen languages, including my native tongue. I don’t think we ever faced grave danger together, but I know that he’s worked with others, including our reporters from The World, where the decisions he made literally meant life or death. I was jealous of his ability.

Once, in the Kurdish area of Iraq where Ayub is from, our car was stuck in a traffic jam. Ayub told the driver to race down the opposite side of the street to get around the cars. It worked, but when we got to the next intersection a traffic cop ran up to the window and started screaming at us.

Instead of apologizing, Ayub started screaming right back. The cop got into our car, and when I asked Ayub where we were headed he said, “to the police station.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed to Ayub, triumphant. “Busted. You’ve finally been caught out. The first time.” Ayub just smiled.

When we got to the police station, the officer got out of the car, waved goodbye and wished us a nice day. “What happened?” I asked.

“I told him the reason we had to drive down the wrong side of the road was because instead of doing his job as a traffic cop, he was sitting on his behind, drinking tea and smoking,” Ayub says. “And I said we’d be perfectly happy to go with him to the police station so I could explain to his superior what an awful cop he is.”

Once again, Ayub had saved the day.

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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