Re 2: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by German

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Thu Jul 29 20:52:06 UTC 2004

On Jul 28, 2004, at 9:28 PM, 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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> --------
> Thanks, Wilson, for your thoughtful post. The Green Berets were
> another of the icons of Kennedy's New Frontier : super-commandos whose
> fighting and linguistic abilities, not to mention their sociopolitical
> savvy, were touted as America's toughest human weapons against
> Communism.  It was a different and now seemingly exotic world in many
> ways, though drearily familiar in many others. It helped to be young
> and idealistic, of course - at least it did temporarily.
> Another word you may have been familiar with was "straightleg," or
> "leg": essentially anybody who was not  "jumper."  They might even go
> back to WWII, but there's no good evidence that I've seen.
> You know, I haven't seen "Platoon" since it came out in 1986.  The
> best critics (i.e., the ones that agree with me) think it's a powerful
> "film experience" (i.e., movie), but cluttered  up with lurid cliches.
> On the other hand, few 18-year old filmgoers in ' 86 had the awareness
> that they WERE lurid cliches.  It certainly came closer to reality
> than, say, "Sands of Iwo Jima," a film that supposedly inspired more
> youg men to join the Marines than any other single influence. (For the
> Army, it was "To Hell and Back.")
> Around 1970, George Davis wrote a novel called "Coming Home" based on
> his experiences in the Air Force in Southeast Asia; it rang true
> enough.  Otherwise (except for Wallace Terry's interviews in
> "Bloods"), black vets have written very, very little in the way of
> memoirs or fiction concerning the Vietnam War.  Iusef Kumenyaa has
> written a memorable book of poetry, though.  (I think he teaches at
> Indiana U. now.)
> Old saying (circa 1968):
> "The only difference between a fairy story and a war story is a fairy
> story starts out, 'Once upon a time' and a war story starts out, 'Now,
> this is no shit...'.

I forgot to mention that the book that I referred to was published in
the late '70's or early '80's. Hence, its author may well have been
familiar with the above saying. Too bad. This lessens the impact of the
opening lines of the novel on me, given that they may not be entirely
original. Oh, well. That's life. But, what the hell? Not even Homer and
Shakespeare were entirely original.


> Jon
> 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
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> On Jul 27, 2004, at 9:16 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
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>> Sender: American Dialect Society
>> Poster: Jonathan Lighter
>> Subject: Re: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by
>> German
>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
>> -
>> --------
>> 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 wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society
>> Poster: Wilson Gray
>> Subject: Re: A couple of examples of black-GI slang influenced by
>> German
>> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
>> -
>> --------
>> 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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