The Burns-Novick The Vietnam War series, like many others, misidentifies the source of U.S. military slang referring to the Vietnamese. It’s easy to see why.
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 in English. Their use of these expressions looked like proof of their native Vietnamese origin. These linguistic somersaults made me laugh.
Three examples, taken from an earlier blog, will illustrate.
During the Korean war, soldiers and Marines heard Koreans say “미국” (miguk) which in Korean means “American.” The words are derived from the Chinese mei guo (美國) which also show up in Vietnamese as Mỹ quốc. The first word in all three languages literally means “beautiful,” but it was used to mean “American” because of the similarity in sound to the letter “m” in “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 invented the term mamasan, 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.