Burns-Novick: One More Memory—Misnomers

One more reverie brought on by the Burns-Novick The Vietnam War:

American troops were in Vietnam for so many years that soldiers and Marines over time attributed to the native Vietnamese words and expressions that they themselves had actually introduced. The Vietnamese, who learned American English from the GIs, incorporated the lingo into their own speech. Their use of these expressions looked like proof of their native Vietnamese origin. These linguistic somersaults made me laugh.

Three examples will illustrate.

During the Korean war, soldiers and Marines heard Koreans say “미국” (miguk) which in Korean means “American.” The U.S. military misunderstood and thought that the Koreans were referring to themselves, saying “me gook,” meaning “I’m a gook.” The term “gook” came to be a disparaging word for Koreans and, eventually, for any member of an Asian race. When U.S. military personnel arrived in Vietnam, they called the inhabitants gooks. The term is so commonly used that it’s now in the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries. I heard more than one GI say that “gook” was the Vietnamese word for a native.

During the occupation of Japan following World War II, Americans picked up a number of terms from the Japanese. One of them was “number one,” a not-quite-accurate translation of the Japanese “Ichiban” (一番) (which really means “first). The Japanese, like the Chinese and other Asians, used “the first” to mean “the best.” Americans assumed that if “number one” meant the best, “number ten” must mean “the worst.” Both expressions became common military slang. The military carried those terms with them to Vietnam and eventually came to believe that they were native Vietnamese terminology.

Also during the occupation of Japan, GIs frequently heard Japanese use San, an honorific added to the end of a name or title to express respect. The soldiers and Marines borrowed the term mamasan (mama means “mother in Japanese), a term honoring a mother, to refer to a woman in a superior position, especially a madam—the owner or proprietor of a whore house. Once again, the term stuck in GI slang and got carried to Vietnam where it came to mean any older Vietnamese woman. By the late 1960s, military personnel assumed the term was Vietnamese.

The misunderstanding of these and other expressions is so common that even Burns and Novick misidentify their source and buy into the assumption that at least some of them are of Vietnamese origin.

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