Going Commando!

Where did the term “to go commando” come from?
When did it first appear?

Just for a change, I’m going to do what I’ve been having a go at other people for doing in all my other posts; offer unverified historical speculation. The difference being that I’m making no attempt to hide that fact. When it comes to the etymology of well-known phrases, or anything else relying upon oral tradition, the truth is even more elusive than in written history or unearthed archaeology. We rely upon limited evidence – the first appearance of a term in print – and a hefty dose of (hopefully educated) guesswork. At any stage we must be ready to be completely off the mark. All we can know for sure is that the earliest documented references are unlikely to be the end of the story. That said, let’s take a look at one such modern phrase…

Now a staple photography subject of “celebrity” magazines, many people became familiar with the expression to “Go Commando” thanks to the (1994) episode of “Friends” where Joey reassures his friends that he won’t “go commando in another man’s fatigues”. In fact, some of our American chums seem to think that’s where it originated. In reality this is one of two “earliest recorded usage” cites that the Oxford English Dictionary used when they incorporated the expression into the “official” lexicon in 2002. They say they were able to trace it to 1980s US college slang (1985 in the Chicago Tribune if Wikipedia is to be believed). From my own (anecdotal) experience, the phrase was current, in UK parlance at least, for many years prior – I remember hearing it in the mid-1980s and (unfortunately) I certainly knew exactly what Joey was talking about when he said it!

So where and when did it originate? Is it really an Americanism? Compared to obscure memes like the “two-fingered salute“, this one has a fairly obvious significance and link to the military. A “Commando” is of course a special forces soldier; originally applied to raiding units of the British Army and Royal Navy in the Second World War, and now used to describe specialist troops all over the world. Use of the term was supported by Winston Churchill over the rather unfortunate official “S(pecial S(ervice)” moniker, eventually replacing it in military use and the popular consciousness. “Go Commando” with reference to underwear (or lack of it!) is therefore meant to imply that such men dispensed with underwear either by choice or necessity. One online article implies that US special forces are so tough as to not require testicular containment. In addition, being highly mobile and deployed in a range of adverse environments, it might actually contribute to some unpleasant groinal complaints. Although this seems like part of the popular myth of the invulnerable special forces soldier, the latter part may be on to something. But none of this gets us back to the when and where of the phrase’s origin.

falklands_6_yomp.jpg
45 Commando Royal Marines marching for Port Stanley (BBC History website)

For me, the most compelling explanation was provided at a recent defence conference by a high-ranking Royal Marine officer. His explanation was that some of his men had partaken of some Argentine rations of dubious age, and had come down with the sort of acute diarrhoea documented by this Parachute Regiment chaplain. Needing to stay on the move, many elected to lose their “shreddies” and even cut holes in their DPM trousers. It’s easy to imagine how this practice might, in the retelling during and immediately after the conflict, become known as “Going Commando”. As this take is roughly contemporary with the OED’s American origin, it would be tempting to assume that the expression could have made it across the atlantic during the 1980s. Provisionally, I might have done just that if I hadn’t come across this Slate article, which claims that the US college reference touched on above goes back not to the ’80s but as far back as 1974, and the then-recent Vietnam War. This, of course, casts doubt upon a British, 1982 origin. But assuming the saying came not from civilian imagination but the returning US troops themselves, how did those men come by it? Did men of the various special operations forces create it, or like the Falklands commandos, invoke it to describe a shared experience of hardship and the practical if unpleasant methods used to deal with that? The trail is going cold at this point, but I would agree with the speculation of this blogger’s anonymous source, who suggests that the term might go as far back as the original commando units of the Second World War, who pioneered this style of warfare. The missing link, as he says, could be the Australian contingent of the Chindit commando force in the Far East – relatives of these men might just have brought the phrase with them to Vietnam 17 years later. And now we really are “reaching”. With respect to the evidence we have to defer to the OED and its American civilian origin and 1974 date. But I do wonder whether there is more to it, and (assuming the story is accurate) how Royal Marines in 1982 might have come to adopt a little-known civilian Americanism.

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13 Responses to “Going Commando!”

  1. Leo Says:

    The malvianas are Argentinian and always will be Argentinians.
    TACHER PIRATE WOMAN

  2. bshistorian Says:

    You appear to have completely missed the point of this post, which was the etymology of a well-known phrase or meme. Absolutely nothing to do with the political status of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, which, I would point out, are in fact British (in terms of political status and population).

  3. Bobbo Says:

    Not unless the indigenous American Indians invented the V sign, and dont forget America was still in diapers when Churchill was first a soldier. There is no doubt – apart from within this extremely tenuous theory – that the two finger salute did originate from the English archers who were unquestionably the finest and most advanced miltary force on the planet at that time in history.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hmm, must have missed your comment above, ‘Bobbo’. Possibly because you’ve posted it on the wrong article.

      Find me ONE reference to an English (or Welsh) archer using this gesture, and I will apologise, shortly before offering to credit you in a published article that would astound academic historians and make both of our names.

      As to my theory, you’ll notice that I admit that it is itself pretty speculative. But your native American claim hardly falsifies it – in fact it seems to post-date Churchill – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=c5hky9f5PgoC&lpg=PA55&dq=native%20american%20%22two%20fingers%22&client=firefox-a&pg=PA55

      Even assuming it were ancient – how and why do you propose that English archers picked up an American gesture? In what meaningful sense could you claim on their behalf, that the archers invented it?

  4. Lenny Says:

    At 52 and ex Para, I would guess going Commando, was more to do with the ‘hairy snatch’ showing.
    Commandos are often out behind enemy lines for long periods – thus unshaven and out of recognisable uniform.

    As for the ‘two fingered salute.’
    I’d love to believe it was that old ‘Cornish archers’ myth.
    But I believe it derives from a ‘two horned’ devil insult. A sort of curse, more than cuss.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Thanks Lenny – both perfectly plausible suggestions. ‘Hairy snatch’ in particular!

  5. Chris Says:

    For whatever light this sheds on the topic, I first heard this phrase in 1977, my first year in the US Army. I was told by soldiers returning from the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Panama that the instructors there told the trainees not to wear underwear in the field because the tight briefs would promote “crotch rot” in that jungle environment (no mention of the utility of boxer shorts). They called it “going commando.”

    My NCOIC at the time, who happened to be a Vietnam veteran, commented that he had been told to do the same thing in Vietnam for the same reason. I don’t remember if my NCOIC recognized or used the phrase – trying to remember the details of a barracks conversation over 30 years ago isn’t easy. I remember the year only because I was credulous young troop just out of boot camp. I have no idea how much their stories were embroidered, but they did use that phrase.

  6. OXOjamm Says:

    “Going Commando” Dates farther in the past than most people imagine. The Romans and the Scottish Warriors never used undergarments or Pants for that matter because it is a hindrance to having the ability to defecate freely while fighting.

    Any Scotsman will tell you that to this day, no one wears a kilt with underwear unless it is a female…It is just not part of the uniform and weather Military or Clan, The Kilt is a uniform, nonetheless.

    The first Commando units also never wore underwear for this reason. Trousers could then be pulled down at a moment notice and “there you go”. In a pinch, you could defecate in the heat of battle and later, unloose your trousers leg to let some of it (Hopefully most of it) out.

    If you ever had a veteran tell you, “I was so scared I that I s*** my pants!”, He was truly a Veteran. All real Veterans know that this is a factual reality of intense combat. You have to be ready at all times to do anything at all on a moments notice.

    Going to frat Parties “Commando” only means that you can “Go for it” (Presumably with a female “Commando”) on a moments notice. I can tell you that we were using it at Croydon Hall Academy In 1966 and I know we were not the first to use this phrase because we heard it from some Ex- Royal Marine Commandos who were instructors at our School. It is a Jaunty and enterprising phrase indeed and after hearing it said in Good Spirits, who wouldn’t want to “Go Commando” or indeed be a Commando!

    All Hail the Commandos! The Tradition Lives on! (After all, wasn’t all that College freedom what everyone was fighting for?….Eh?…(^>)

    Vince,
    http://WWW.OXOjamm.Com
    Copyright OXOjamm Studios: http://WWW.Mp3.com.Au/OXOjamm
    Americas Last remaining Jamm Method Studio. Free Mp3 Downloads Every Day!

  7. mak Says:

    commando troops in the tropical jungle or in the desrt used to go to battle or await the enemy with no underwear not only to be eble to shit freely during combet, but also to avoid genital rash and then infections when unwashed during a long time. That is why in the desertacmpaign against genm Rommel i WWII, doctors seriously considered the possibiliy of circumcizing all British soldiers because on inflammation or infections under foresins, Fortunately this was not done, but anyway soldiers were ordered to live and fight witout underwear, whatever testicular disconfort might be. Maybe this is a clue to “going commndo”

  8. Männerunterwäsche Says:

    Yo people… thx, but why oh why does this underwear seem to be yellow??

  9. Julian Caswell Says:

    The expression ‘ Going Commando ‘ actually stems from ‘ shaving pubic hair ‘ ….in the jungle , troops had to do that to stop nasty things …….the origins have nothing to do with not wearing underwear !….

  10. Ajit Nathaniel Says:

    During WW2, the ‘Chindits’ operating in IndoChina were often afflicted with dysentry, a most unpleasant infirmity often characterised by a frequent and unpredictable voiding of bowels. Afflicted personnel took to marching nude to avoid the drudgery of dealing with soiled kit. This I believe is the origin of the term.

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