Fifty-Fifty O’Brien Glossary
Stories from the Golden Age reflect the words and expressions used in the 1930s and 1940s, adding unique flavor and authenticity to the tales. While a character’s speech may often reflect regional origins, it also can convey attitudes common in the day. So that readers can better grasp such cultural and historical terms, uncommon words or expressions of the era, the following glossary has been provided.
Ahaggar Plateau: a highland region in the central Sahara, located in southern Algeria. It is an arid, rocky upland region and the home of the formerly nomadic Tuareg.
apache: a Parisian gangster or thug. The term was first used in 1902 by a French journalist to describe Paris thieves who were known for their crimes of violence. Apaches were so called because their alleged savagery was compared with that attributed by Europeans to the Native American tribes of Apaches.
aux armes: (French) to arms.
bandolier: a broad belt worn over the shoulder by soldiers and having a number of small loops or pockets for holding cartridges.
“Bang Away, Lulu”: a Navy/Marine song about a woman named Lulu.
barker: someone who stands in front of a show at a carnival and gives a loud colorful sales talk to potential customers.
bataillon pénal: (French) penal battalion; military unit consisting of convicted persons for whom military service was either assigned punishment or a voluntary replacement of imprisonment. Penal battalion service was very dangerous: the official view was that they were highly expendable and were to be used to reduce losses in regular units. Convicts were released from their term of service early if they suffered a combat injury (the crime was considered to be “washed out with blood”) or performed a heroic deed.
Berbers: members of a people living in North Africa, primarily Muslim, living in settled or nomadic tribes between the Sahara and Mediterranean Sea and between Egypt and the Atlantic Ocean.
bleus: (French) raw recruits; newcomers.
boot: saddle boot; a close-fitting covering or case for a gun or other weapon that straps to a saddle.
bowler: derby; a hard felt hat with a rounded crown and narrow brim, created by James Lock & Co, a firm founded in 1676 in London. The prototype was made in 1850 for a customer of Lock’s by Thomas and William Bowler, hat makers in Southwark, England. At first it was dubbed the iron hat because it was hard enough to protect the head, and later picked up the name bowler because of its makers’ family name. In the US it became known as a derby from its association with the Kentucky Derby.
campaigner: campaign hat; a felt hat with a broad stiff brim and four dents in the crown, formerly worn by personnel in the US Army and Marine Corps.
cannon cracker: a large firecracker.
carbines: short light rifles, originally used by soldiers on horses.
Chauchat: a light machine gun used mainly by the French Army. It was among the first light machine-gun designs of the early 1900s. It set a precedent for twentieth-century firearm projects as it could be built inexpensively in very large numbers.
Colt Police Positive .38: a .38-caliber revolver developed by the Colt Firearms Company in answer to a demand for a more powerful version of the .32-caliber Police Positive. First introduced in 1905, these guns were sold to many US police forces and European military units, as well as being made available to the general public.
cork off: go to bed; sleep.
corpsman: an enlisted member of the Navy Medical Corps trained in field medical aid, especially in combat situations. They usually wear Marine Corps uniforms with Navy rank and insignia.
cur: a mean, cowardly person.
“cut of the vest”: execution where the victim’s head was cut with a machete, the arms were then severed at the shoulders and a design etched on the chest with machete slashes.
deck court: the lowest of naval courts. It is a court composed of one commissioned officer for the trial of enlisted men for minor offenses. The deck court cannot adjudge a punishment greater than twenty days’ confinement or twenty days’ solitary confinement, and twenty days’ loss of pay.
¿De donde viene el caballo?: (Spanish) Where is the horse from?
dixies: mess tins or oval pots often used in camp for cooking or boiling.
¿Donde estás?: (Spanish) Where are you?
drome: short for airdrome; a military air base.
empaqueter: (French) pack up.
G-men: government men; agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
gob: a sailor in the US Navy.
goldbrick: a person, especially a soldier, who avoids assigned duties or work.
grandstand play: a showy action or move, as in a sport, in order to gain attention or approval.
grifter: crooked game operator; a person who operates a sideshow at a circus, fair, etc., especially a gambling attraction.
Guardia: Nicaraguan National Guard; Guardia Nacional. This militia was formed in Nicaragua during US occupation in 1925. A long period of civil strife had encouraged the development of a variety of private armies. The freshly elected government requested that the US Marines (equally interested in central control) remain in Nicaragua until an indigenous security force could be trained. The Nicaraguan government hired a retired US general to establish the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua. US forces left in 1925, but after a brief resurgence of violence, returned in 1926, taking over command of the Guardia Nacional until 1933, when it was returned to Nicaraguan control under the government.
gyrene: a Marine.
HE: high explosive.
hein?: (French) eh?
heliograph: a device for signaling by means of a movable mirror that reflects beams of light, especially sunlight, to a distance.
High Atlas: portion of the Atlas Mountain range that rises in the west at the Atlantic coast and stretches in an eastern direction to the Moroccan-Algerian border.
hobnail: a short nail with a thick head used to increase the durability of a boot sole.
joyeux: (French) from Les Joyeux, “the joyful.” The common name for a member of the penal battalions because they were always complaining.
jujitsu: an art of weaponless self-defense developed in Japan that uses throws, holds and blows. It derives added power from the attacker’s own weight and strength.
kepi: a cap with a circular top and a nearly horizontal visor; a French military cap that men in the Foreign Legion wear.
leatherneck: a member of the US Marine Corps. The phrase comes from the early days of the Marine Corps when enlisted men were given strips of leather to wear around their necks. The popular concept was that the leather protected the neck from a saber slash, though it was actually used to keep the Marines from slouching in uniform by forcing them to keep their heads up.
Legionnaire: a member of the French Foreign Legion, a unique elite unit within the French Army established in 1831. It was created as a unit for foreign volunteers and was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the nineteenth century, but has also taken part in all of France’s wars with other European powers. It is known to be an elite military unit whose training focuses not only on traditional military skills, but also on the building of a strong esprit de corps amongst members. As its men come from different countries with different cultures, this is a widely accepted solution to strengthen them enough to work as a team. Training is often not only physically hard with brutal training methods, but also extremely stressful with high rates of desertion.
martinet: a rigid military disciplinarian.
midway: an avenue or area at a carnival where the concessions for exhibitions of curiosities, games of chance, scenes from foreign life, merry-go-rounds, and other rides and amusements are located.
¡Mira! ¡Mira! ¡Yanquis!: (Spanish) Look! Look! Yankees!
mon brave: (French) my brave one; my courageous one.
mon sergent: (French) my sergeant.
Moroccan mountains: Moroccan Atlas ranges; a portion of the Atlas Mountain range lying completely in Morocco.
mountain rifle: a very long, ruggedly built rifle designed for use in mountainous terrain.
mulligan: mulligan stew; a stew made from whatever ingredients are available.
murette: (French) a low wall.
musette bag: a general-purpose canvas bag with a shoulder strap used by soldiers.
one-pounder: a gun firing a one-pound shot or shell. It looks somewhat like a miniature cannon.
¡Oye! ¿Que pasa?: (Spanish) Hey! What’s happening?
¡Oye, Ramón! ¿Donde estás?: (Spanish) Hey, Ramón! Where are you?
panels: ground-to-air panel system; a system used by ground troops to communicate, to a limited degree, with aircraft by displaying black and white panels on the ground to transmit brief messages or to identify a unit.
pannikin: a small pan, often of tin.
PC: Post Command; military installation where the command personnel are located.
pipe down: turn in; release from duties and go to bed.
puttee: a covering for the lower part of the leg from the ankle to the knee, consisting of a long narrow piece of cloth wound tightly and spirally round the leg, and serving both as a support and protection. It was once adopted as part of the uniform of foot and mounted soldiers in several armies.
¿Que pasó?: (Spanish) What happened?
¿Quién sabe?: (Spanish) Who knows?
Quoi?: (French) What?
rattler: a fast freight train.
salopard: (French) an offensive expression for a detestable person.
Scheherazade: the female narrator of The Arabian Nights, who during one thousand and one adventurous nights saved her life by entertaining her husband, the king, with stories.
shavetail: a second lieutenant.
Sidi: Sidi-bel-Abbès, which is a capital of the Sidi-bel-Abbès province in northwestern Algeria. The city was developed around a French camp built in 1843. From 1931 until 1961, the city was the “holy city” or spiritual home of the French Foreign Legion, the location of its basic training camp and the headquarters of its first foreign regiment.
solo: (Spanish) alone.
Springfield: any of several types of rifle, named after Springfield, Massachusetts, the site of a federal armory that made the rifles.
top kick: a first sergeant, the senior enlisted grade authorized in a company.
Tuaregs: members of the nomadic Berber-speaking people of the southwestern Sahara in Africa. They have traditionally engaged in herding, agriculture and convoying caravans across their territories. The Tuaregs became among the most hostile of all the colonized peoples of French West Africa, because they were among the most affected by colonial policies. In 1917, they fought a vicious and bloody war against the French, but they were defeated and as a result, dispossessed of traditional grazing lands. They are known to be fierce warriors; European explorers expressed their fear by warning, “The scorpion and the Tuareg are the only enemies you meet in the desert.”
twenty-two or .22 rifle: .22-caliber rifle. The relatively short effective range, low report and light recoil have made it a favorite for use in target practice. With its quiet report, it is ideal for indoor shooting or in areas that are confined.
two bits: a quarter; during the colonial days, people used coins from all over the world. When the US adopted an official currency, the Spanish milled (machine-struck) dollar was chosen and it later became the model for American silver dollars. Milled dollars were easily cut apart into equal “bits” of eight pieces. Two bits would equal a quarter of a dollar.
USMC: United States Marine Corps.
volley fire: simultaneous artillery fire in which each piece is fired a specified number of rounds without regard to the other pieces, and as fast as accuracy will permit.
Webley: Webley and Scott handgun; an arms manufacturer based in England that produced handguns from 1834. Webley is famous for the revolvers and automatic pistols it supplied to the British Empire’s military, particularly the British Army, from 1887 through both World War I and World War II.
yanqui: (Spanish) Yankee; term used to refer to Americans in general.