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Common words from military usage
Dec 06, 2012
A surprising number of commonplace words began in military usage.
Ambulance is an example. It comes from the French phrase, hôpital ambulant (walking hospital). This moving hospital followed the army to provide the wounded with speedy care.
Napoleon’s personal physician, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1842) established the first ambulances — basic dispensers of first aid, simple covered litters equipped with bandages, etc.
Ambulance entered English during the Crimean War (1853-56) although it was in French as early as 1819.
In today’s understanding of ambulance, it’s “a conveyance for the incapacitated,” and modern ambulances truly are moving hospitals.
Sometimes, a crossword clue seeks a synonym for, “wide street,’ or, “broad avenue with trees.” The standard answer is boulevard, a word apparently unrelated to anything military. However, boulevard is a corruption of bulwark.
Bulwark entered Middle English from Middle High German bolwerk (log-work). In English, bulwark essentially means, “a rampart; a fortification.”
In French usage, the word originally referred to the flat or horizontal part of a rampart. The first French boulevards were built upon demolished fortifications. We took boulevard from the French in 1772.
Oxford says a boulevard is, “a broad street or promenade planted with rows of trees as found especially in Paris.”
A diehard (sometimes die-hard) is one who refuses to give up, who resists to the last.
Oxford, in noting that British usage often uses diehard in connection with conservative politicians, still links the word to the 57th Foot Regiment of the British Army.
The 57th Foot fought at the Battle of Albuera in Spain in 1811. This battle occurred during the Peninsular War between France and England and was part of the Napoleonic Wars. Four thousand English soldiers died at Albuera.
The 57th Foot was an infantry regiment of about 600 men led by Sir William Inglis. Although badly outnumbered by the French, Inglis ordered his soldiers to, “Stand your ground and die hard and make the enemy pay dear.”
The English won that battle but the 57th Foot suffered 438 casualties. Following the battle, this regiment became known as, “The Die-Hards.”
Camouflage, also from French, was unknown in English until the First World War. 
In the 1870s, the French underworld borrowed the word from the Italian camufler (to disguise). In French, camoufler came to mean, “to puff smoke,” slang for, “a distraction.”
Apparently, pickpockets employed pretty girls, usually hookers, to lure men. They’d provocatively blow smoke into the men’s faces to distract them while their pockets were picked. These women were called camouflettes.
About 1910, camouflet referred to any criminal disguise. British soldiers adopted the term as camouflage and used it as we do today.
A trophy is a symbol of victory. This meaning has been retained from the word’s genesis in ancient Greece.  At that time, a trophy was a structure built on a battlefield — a victory memorial. It was usually a pile of weapons and other spoils confiscated from the vanquished.
We’ve used the word in English since 1513, having borrowed it not from Greek but from French. The French lifted it from Latin.