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 (1996) episode of “Friends”  (‘The One Where No One’s Ready’) 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.

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.