10 Tired Expressions of the Modern Military

Updated: November 5, 2014

By Pablo James

Every now and then some military leader sums up an idea in a clear and eloquent way that makes the concept clear and easily understandable to all. The expression they used, whether colorful or thoughtful, catches on with other leaders who use it to make their own plans more easily understandable. Other times, a field grade officer grabs a copy of Forbes Magazine or begins getting their MBA and starts to grab up cutting edge business jargon to include in their briefings.

Commonly, we as military professionals will simply take some terminology from a military task and apply it elsewhere…sometimes ironically and sometimes not.

What inevitably follows is a pantheon of overused and often inappropriately used expressions that will weave their way into every PowerPoint, every commander’s update brief, and every pep talk in every TOC in every corner of the globe where we have boots on the ground (see what I did there?). The following is a list of some of the worst offenders and my thoughts on why these idiomatic abortions should be stricken from the vernacular of every Soldier, Airman, Sailor, and Marine.

“Pop smoke. – This gem alludes to the practice of deploying a smoke grenade-either to mark your landing zone for an aircraft coming to extract you from a bad situation or to obscure the enemy’s vision as you withdraw from an objective. It has become synonymous with leaving any area under any circumstances. It’s anyone’s guess whether most folks using this expression have every actually “popped smoke” in real life or could even conduct that task to standard.

“Guys, I think we’ve been at the PX long enough. Let’s pop smoke and get out of here.

“Focus on your 50-meter target. – Army rifle qualifications have targets ranging from 50 meters to 300 meters away. Referring to something as a 50-meter target simply identifies is the closest thing physically, chronologically, or by importance. It can be a deadline, a task that is due before others, or something that takes priority over other things. It gets the point across, but do we have to use rifle range terminology in the office just to remind ourselves we are in a profession-of-arms?

“Lieutenant, those are all great ideas, but remember that your 50-meter target is getting those NCOERs turned in.

“Tighten up your shot group. – Again with the rifle terminology? We get it, military types shoot rifles. On the range, tightening the shot group refers to keeping your bullets hitting close together, which means you are shooting proficiently and accurately. Used in the platoon cage or company CP, it simply means doing your job more proficiently. So why don’t we just say that?

“These PowerPoint presentations look pretty good. Now, let’s tighten up our shot groups and make them look exceptional!

“I’m not going to tell you how to skin the cat…” – In mil-speak, this is your boss’ way of telling you they have a task for you to accomplish, but they are leaving the details of accomplishing that task up to you. I’ve never been exactly sure why we needed animal torture or taxidermy to illustrate this. Anyway, are there really that many ways to skin an animal?

“You’re all big boys and girls. I shouldn’t have to tell you how to skin the cat and get this PMCS completed by COB.

“Push this to the right/left. – Pushing to the left or right doesn’t actually involve physical exertion in any direction. This expression asks the listener to visualize a timeline written on a paper or a board. Moving a task or event to the left or right refers to changing it from its current scheduled time to an earlier or later time. At least this expression refers to something the TOC rats and S Shop weenies have actually seen in real life.

“Captain, we’re not going to have everyone back in garrison by then. Can we push the PT test to the right a few days?

“White space. – Much like it’s “push this to the left” cousin, this expression uses the office environment to illustrate its meaning. White space (sometimes referred to as “White space on the board) refers to scheduling. It refers to unfilled spaces on a planning board or spreadsheet. Timeframes a leader can, or should, fill with something constructive for the troops to do.

“There’s plenty of white space on the board later in the week. That would be a great opportunity for remedial training, yes?

“It is what it is. – Well, no shit. This just a brief and colorful way of saying that this is our current reality and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It is a particularly useful way for a unit leader to skirt the fact that he has no idea if the situation is changeable because he lacks the intestinal fortitude to argue the point with a higher commander.

“I wish we had more time, too, but this is what it is. Let’s focus on using our time better.

“Actioned. – I don’t know where grammarians stand on this one, but as far as I am concerned “action” is a noun, not a verb. Using it as one is just plain lazy. In the military context, it allows the speaker to save the time and effort needed to say “deal with this” or “read this email and address the task communicated therein.” Yeah, that definitely saves a ton of time-time that could be more efficiently used by blurting “Hooah” five or six more times.

“First Sergeant, have you actioned the 700 emails that were in your inbox this morning.

shutterstock_14832865“Check your headspace and timing. – Setting a correct headspace and timing is a critical function check when employing an M2 .50 Caliber machine gun. Frequently in the military, however, we hear it used to reinforce the need to make sure important preliminary tasks have been completed. It can also mean ensuring that a subordinate soldier has the mental aptitude or proper mindset to serve effectively in the military.

Personally, I feel that if someone uses the expression “headspace and timing” in circumstances not involving hands-on training, maintenance, and/or employment of the M2 machine gun, they should be required to define headspace and timing and demonstrate it correctly…or be kicked in the balls by the person they were speaking to.

“You’ve got a pretty good platoon here, but make sure PFC Snuffy’s headspace and timing is where it needs to be before we deploy.

“Drill Down. – You hear this when your commander wants you to become intimately familiar with the workings of something and know every detail. The obvious question that leaps to mind upon hearing this is, “What the ever-loving f**k are you talking about???” Does the boss want you to drill a hole in something? Start mining for gold and ore? Start an oil well outside the TOC? How exactly does “drill down” equate to learning the minutia of something?

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are heading back into an intense, post-deployment training cycle. Let’s dig out those FMs and regulations and really drill down into them and make sure we’re planning and executing training to standard!

“Ranger Up – Whenever someone needs to improve their performance or motivation, someone inevitably… You know what? Never mind. That one is actually pretty solid. Forget I mentioned that last one.




  1. JoeC

    November 5, 2014 at 9:19 am

    At least these phrases are have some form of real meaning in the military with the exception of cat skinning or drilling down. I know people that have never served and haven’t got the most remote of ideas what these actually mean that use them every day. I think I might try the technique of asking what they are talking about and kick them in the balls if they don’t know. Seems like a good way to shut them up. Or at least move the pitch of their voice into a range that is inaudible by the human ear. Then the local dogs can deal with their stupidity.

  2. Jeff Harrison

    November 5, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    “Pull Chocks” (also communicated non-verbally by the bumping of both fists together with a outward spreading motion, with thumbs extended to either side of the fists”

    An Air Force expression to indicate the need to leave an area or situation. This hand signal is most useful in situations where you need to communicate to a drunken friend that he has selected a less than favorable partner at a bar or club.

  3. Stephen

    November 8, 2014 at 3:24 am

    During briefing when top is finished talking but before dismissal he asks, “are there any alibis” to ask if anyone needs to say anything before he sets us free

  4. Jake

    November 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Stand fast, using FRAGO in normal conversation, take all commands from the tower outside of being on the range, calling pockets Air Force gloves, watch your lane, tracking like an eight track.

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