A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by German

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Wed Jul 28 06:22:33 UTC 2004

On Jul 27, 2004, at 9:16 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
> Subject:      Re: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by
> German
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> Thank you much, Wilson, for the post.
> Am especially grateful for data on "The World" : yours is the first
> reliable evidence that it antedates Vietnam, ca.1965.
> Please keep the data coming.  Surely "grunt" wasn't in use in Germany
> -- or was it?

No, it wasn't. Since the greatest danger that we faced in Germany was
drunk-driving, an infantryman was of little interest, unless he was
also a Ranger, a Green Beret (a demi-god!), or at least a "jumper" [=
Airborne]. These three commanded a hell of a lot of respect. The 503rd
and the 504th Airborne Brigades were stationed near my unit, Processing
Company, which was part of the 507th Army Security Agency Group, a
non-combat unit. Knowing of the 503rd and the 504th, people naturally
assumed that the 507th was also Airborne. So, off post, in civvies, we
were held in awe. On post, however, we were derided as "Monterey Marys"
by members of the unit that shared our post, Headquarters &
Headquarters Company of the 507th, because we were graduates of the
Army Language School in Monterey, CA, and, supposedly, marys [=
homosexuals]. We, in turn, referred to them as "Animals." Both
Processing and Head & Head joined in referring to any non-member of the
Security Agency as an Animal.

> The observation about the black GIs in "Platoon" is striking; I taught
> a course in "War & Literature" from 1999 till this past spring.  I
> assume (pointy-headed liberal that I am) that Stone (a real lefty) was
> eliciting sympathy for the guys who cracked, but if one has a
> sufficiently afrophobic predisposition, it could be taken as another
> stereotypical reinforcement.

I was so shocked by that particular scene in an otherwise great war
flick that the whole movie was blown for me. I was really disappointed
and embarrassed. I thought that Stone "had a bad understanding" and had
bought into the lie that "American society is now so integrated that we
whites can go back to portraying blacks as fools, comic relief, and
cowards unworthy of the white man's respect, just as we used to do,
back in the good old days." I found Coppola's treatment in Apocalypse
Now far more palatable.

Of course, this is not to say that I don't enjoy a good - or even a bad
- comedy based on (stereo)typical impressions of what blacks are like,
e,g, School Daze, the Barbershop series, Undercover Brother. Shit, I
even enjoyed "Amos 'n' Andy," Jack Benny's valet, Rochester, and
Charlie Chan's chauffeur, Birmingham, back in the day. Everybody
understands that that stuff "ain't necessarily so." But Stone was being
deadly serious and supposedly showing it as it really was: that blacks
were the first to crack under pressure, thereby needlessly/heedlessly
putting the lives of brave, noble, freedom-loving white folk in danger.
And, needless to say, it's hardly afrophobic of me to have interpreted
that battle scene in this way.
> You've noticed how few (published) Vietnam memoirs and/or novels have
> been written by black GI's.

I'm aware of only a single volume of reminiscences and no novels. But
it's been a couple of decades, at least, since I last checked. FWIW, my
favorite opening is from a Vietnam War novel, "All war stories begin
the same way. This is no shit." On the one hand, "This is no shit"
underlines the author's opening assertion. On the other hand, when old
soldiers in real life tell war stories, they really do begin by
alleging, "This is no shit" as a matter of course.

-Wilson Gray

> JL
> Wilson Gray <hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET> wrote:
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> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: Wilson Gray
> Subject: Re: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by
> German
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
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> As usual, I'm talking about ancient history. My arrival in Germany
> ["After offloading (the first time that I'd ever heard this word) the
> bus, officers and civilian personnel and their dependents will proceed
> to the first room. NCO's and their dependents will proceed to the
> second room. Remaining personnel will proceed to the third room." And
> we found ourselves back outside in the snowstorm] was in 1/961,
> predating the Berlin Wall. At that time, black troops and white troops
> did not interact socially. Black was as socially separate from white as
> in any segregated, stomp-down Mississippi backwater. As a consequence,
> if white GI's used "hitting the strasse" at that time, it's not
> something that I could have known anything about. Likewise, only black
> troops referred to any German or Germans as "Cumrad," for which, as I
> said, there was no other form, regardless of the number of Germans
> referred to. In fact, the entire German nation was "Cumrad" when it
> became necessary to refer to it. Things being as they were, in general,
> the only whites that I had occasion to talk to were the officers and
> the long-service NCO's in command who still used "Krauts" for the
> Germans. They referred to the US as "The States" or as the "Land of the
> Big PX," whereas the "Unites States Colored Troops," to revive a term
> from the Civil War, referred to the US as "The World."
> As you probably know, during the Vietnam War, when the spelling
> "Viet-Nam" was still used, the term "The World" became the common term
> among all GI's for the usual reason: as some wise man once put it,
> "Everybody wants to be a nigger, unless he is one.".
> At first, I was very much in favor of the war in Vietnam for a single
> reason: this war was the first time in history in which integration was
> an *active* policy in any situation or in any location under the
> control of the United States. Black soldiers became NCO's. Black
> officers actually led white soldiers into battle, Black generals
> finally *commanded,* instead of merely acting as the adjutants - a
> military term meaning approximately "manservants" - of white generals.
> It appeared that the interracial millenium had finally arrived. When
> you read the memoirs of black Vietnam vets, it's astounding to see the
> pride and joy with they served side by side with their white
> brothers-in-arms. However, when you read the memoirs of white vets, you
> see that, to them, the black troops were merely the same old niggers
> that they'd always been throughout American history. Even in war
> movies like "Platoon," it's only the black soldiers who are shown
> cracking under the pressure of combat, not the white soldiers who are
> forced to save the lives of these worthless black fools.
> -Wilson Gray
> On Jul 26, 2004, at 7:20 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society
>> Poster: Jonathan Lighter
>> Subject: Re: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by
>> German
>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
>> -
>> --------
>> Thanks for the post, Wilson. Most of these are new to me. I have
>> heard white GIs refer to "hitting the /strass@/." West Germans
>> are/were referred to as "comrades" as indicated. By the '70s this had
>> been reduced to "rads."
>> JL
>> Wilson Gray wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society
>> Poster: Wilson Gray
>> Subject: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by German
>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
>> -
>> --------
>> "Bop the strahss" : go for a casual walk or stroll along the
>> sidewalk(s) through town, just checking out the happenings, wherein
>> "strahss" is clearly based on German "Strasse" street.
>> "Put the shprekken on [someone]" : a host meanings, such as, provide
>> someone with needed information; run a confidence game on someone;
>> tell
>> someone like it T I tiz; attempt to seduce a woman; tell someone the
>> latest rumor or gossip, etc., wherein "shprekken" is clearly based on
>> German "sprechen" speak.
>> "Cumrad" : like "Comrade" [< G Kamerad] Mil. in W. Germany a German as
>> in DHAS, but otherwise different. In WWII movies and comic books,
>> Wehrmacht soldiers shout "Kamerad" and, perhaps, show a white flag, as
>> a sign of surrender. Since then, black GI's have used "Cumrad" as the
>> essential, insulting term for "German" in any context whatsoever, like
>> "Kraut" used by white GI's. "Cumrad," however, is both singular and
>> plural, plus collective and individuative.
>> Hence, we would say, e.g. "I was going to bop the strahss, till I saw
>> Cumrad." I was going to go for a walk till I saw how many indigenous
>> personnel [the official military term] were on the street. The problem
>> was that the average Doob(ie) - the insulting term for a German used
>> by
>> Russian-speaking GI's in the Army Security Agency - man-in-the-street
>> tended to react with stunned, drop-jawed shock and awe to the sight of
>> anyone who was obviously not a German (unless he was a Turk), even if
>> he was white (German guys already wore, in the late '50's, what came
>> to
>> be known as the Beatle haircut, so that the fact that you weren't a
>> German was given away by your GI haircut, even if you were otherwise
>> white and relatively short), let alone black. So, no black GI's would
>> want to walking, if there were a lot of Germans already on the street.
>> Americans are taught at least to pretend not to stare. Not so with
>> Cumrad. Being 6' 4" tall, weighing 205, and clearly of African
>> descent, I LITERALLY STOPPED TRAFFIC! Cumrad would come from all
>> directions to get a look at the monstrosity in their midst. And
>> returning the look of Cumrad staring at you would not cause him to
>> turn
>> away, making you feel like a zoo animal. Cumrad would bring his
>> children up to the table to stare at me, if I was trying to eat a meal
>> in a restaurant. A five-year-old, pointing, shouted across the town
>> plaza in Bernkastel, "Kuk, Mutti! Ein Mohr!" Look, Mom! A Moor!"
>> Of course, since nobody put the shprekken on Cumrad, the Germans
>> didn't
>> realize that Cumrad was meant as an insult. Hence, it was possible to
>> address a German as Cumrad under any set of circumstances and said
>> German would always respond positively, thinking that we were
>> addressing him as a "comrade," as opposed to the "Kraut" used by white
>> GI's, and were, therefore, at least attempting to be friendly.
>> "Fraw" and "Frawline" (of obvious origin) were used the same way
>> syntactically, but differently semantically. Someone once said to me,
>> "Frawline is the queen of Europe," i.e. "German women are the most
>> beautiful in Europe."
>> -Wilson Gray
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