8 words from the American Civil War
Not only did the American Civil War have immense political ramifications, it also had a major impact on American culture, and even exerted some influence on the language. The following terms all either emerged directly from, or have senses which were directly influenced by, the conflict. Let’s have a look at several Civil War words.
As much angst as the word deadline incites in people today, the term probably struck more fear in the hearts of Civil War-era soldiers. After all, in military prisons of the time, the ‘dead line’ referred to the line drawn around a military prison outside of which prisoners were liable to be shot.
However, this sense of deadline isn’t exactly the word that we use today, although it may have had some influence on the sense that emerged in journalism slang in the 1920s, which referred to the ‘time by which material had to be ready for inclusion in a particular issue of a publication’. This newspaper sense of the word is the one that has directly come to us today.
2. (Hearing it through the) grapevine
For most people, Marvin Gaye’s 1968 Motown classic is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the ‘grapevine’, even though it turns out that the term has its roots in the Civil War. In the modern sense, of course, the ‘grapevine’ refers to ‘the circulation of rumors and unofficial information’. This sense comes from the Civil War-era notion of ‘a despatch by grapevine telegraph’, referring to information passed unofficially from person to person rather than through official communication sources such as the telegraph.
Following the Union victory, there was a flood of immigrants from the Northern states to the South, some of them hoping to secure political influence in the governmental disarray after the war. Southerners took to calling this group of people ‘carpetbaggers’, a derogatory term that implied that their ‘property qualification’ consisted of no more than the contents of the carpet-bag they carried. (Following the war, the US government abolished the requirement of ‘property qualification’ for holding public office in the South.)
The term still sees extended use in political circles today, now referring to ‘a political candidate who seeks election in an area where they have no local connections’. Sometimes the term is used more generally to refer to someone who is seen as an ‘unscrupulous opportunist’.
The word shoddy initially referred to ‘woolen yarn obtained by tearing to shreds refuse woolen rags’, which is then combined with new wool to make cloth. Needless to say, this textile was not of the highest quality, so the sense of shoddy as an adjective referring to ‘badly made or done’ naturally follows. But why does the word also refer to someone or something ‘sordid’ or ‘lacking moral principle’?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word was used during the Civil War to refer to those who made vast sums of money thanks to army contracts by allegedly producing clothing largely made out of – you guessed it! – shoddy rather than higher quality cloth.
5. Rebel yell
Given that there are no audio recordings from the Civil War, it’s hard to know exactly what a ‘rebel yell’ – ‘a shout or battle cry used by the Confederates’ as they went into battle – sounded like. (Historians are left to grapple instead with recordings made in the 1930s of then-elderly Confederate veterans demonstrating the yell.) Even so, the concept of the rebel yell remains an important part of American folklore, especially in popular music, appearing in the songs of artists as varied as Johnny Horton, Eminem, and Miley Cyrus.
Speaking of music, it should be noted that Billy Idol’s classic 1984 song ‘Rebel Yell’ has nothing to do with the Confederacy. Idol has explained in interviews that the song’s name has its origins with the ‘Rebel Yell’ brand of bourbon whiskey.
Given its informality, you may be surprised to learn that skedaddle actually has its origins in military slang of the Civil War, when it meant ‘to retreat or retire hastily’ or ‘to flee’, referring specifically to soldiers or troops. Today, the word generally means ‘to depart quickly or hurriedly’ or ‘run away’. While some sources suggest that the word may have come from Swedish or Danish, the origin is ultimately obscure, and is likely a fanciful formation.
A principal player in the Civil War on the Union side, and later a US Senator, General Ambrose Burnside (1824–81) is probably best remembered for his distinctive facial hair. However, two major changes happened to the style since the time of Burnside: 1) the mustache disappeared, so that the style featured a strip of facial hair extending from the hairline down each side of the face, and 2) the word was flipped around to become sideburns. Not enough explanation? We’ve got got another post covering the history of sideburns for you.
8. Lost cause
Although the term existed prior to the Civil War (alarmingly, Oxford is sometimes known as ‘home of lost causes’, after being so dubbed by Matthew Arnold in 1865! ), the term shot into prominence due to its association with the Confederacy, which sympathizers began to refer to as the ‘Lost Cause’. Lost cause today refers generally to ‘a person or thing that can no longer hope to succeed or be changed for the better’.