on my six

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 14 13:09:13 UTC 2010

The vast reading and listening program behind HDAS, heavy on slang-creating
contexts like world wars, found no exx. of  "on my six" and "watch your six"
until long after the Vietnam War.  "Watch your six!" occurs in the script of
_Top Gun_ (1986).
And indeed, the phrases seem to be more closely connected with U.S. Navy
aviation rather than that of the other services, including the Air Force.

I cannot cite a single WW2 or Korean War memoirist - never
mind autobiographical novelist - who used either phrase in ref. to those

The official "clock" system of stating approximate direction was used for
gunnery purposes in WW1. Planes in WW1, of course, had no radios or
intercoms. Since a pilot in an open cockpit could, if necessary, shout,
wave, and point to the lone gunner behind him (or to the pilot of another
plane), so there was no need or opportunity to say things like "Bogey, six
o'clock low." That, however, was prescribed procedure in WW2.

The idiom dispenses with any preposition. Whatever the context (even, e.g.,
pilot radioing to pilot) "[Code name here]! Six o'clock!" is a far more
likely utterance than the nonstandard (and therefore less efficient) "On
your six!"

The evidence suggests that the metaphorical uses of "six" (the only number
in the clock system slangily used, AFAICT) presumably gained currency only
during or after the Vietnam War, not necessarily, of course, in operational


On Fri, May 14, 2010 at 7:22 AM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at gmail.com>wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: on my six
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I am quite certain that you description is accurate--and matches the
> Wiktionary description. As I only have an incomplete search to offer as
> evidence, the phrase appears in one novel that describes the Vietnam War
> period--since the novel is published in 2007, there is no way to tell if
> it the term is anachronistic, but it seems unlikely. Further search is
> bound to reveal earlier occurrences.
> However, given that its an aviation term, it seems doubtful that its
> origin goes back much earlier than WWII. Naval aviation is just not that
> old. Again, I am making an assumption here that the attachment to
> specifically /Naval/ aviation is accurate. Certainly the use of clock
> metaphors for directions is common in Naval aviation, as you suggest.
> However, my point remains the same--I found no OED entry that suggests
> "six" as a direction, irrespectively of whether it's a part of the
> expression "on my six" or on its own. There /is/ an entry for "six
> o'clock", as a direction, under C. 5., going back to 1684.
>     VS-)
> On 5/14/2010 6:13 AM, Geoffrey S. Nathan wrote:
> > This is one of Wilson's 'WAG's', but 'on my six' must derive from the
> directional terminology related to clocks (referred to later in the post
> with respect to sailing).
> >
> > If so, it dates back at least to WW II, because it would be parallel to
> such phrases as 'twelve o'clock high' (i.e. directly in front of, and above
> you, used in aerial combat). A well-known book with the latter title
> appeared in 1948, with a movie of it made the next year. 'On my six' would,
> of course, mean 'directly behind me'. The use of possessives with the
> construction is common.
> >
> > I suspect the use is much older than that.
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