The Language of the Vietnam War: 40 Terms

Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet-Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border, March 1965. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

In 2022 – we’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Throughout the year, we’re highlighting lists of 40 things related to the Vietnam war/era.

This month, we’ve compiled 40 terms from the Vietnam War:


1.     ARVN
The “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” was the main fighting force of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War.
2.     NVA/VC
The “North Vietnamese Army” was the army that fought against the United States in the Vietnam War. The “Viet Cong” was the guerilla force associated with the North Vietnamese Army.
3.     DMZ
The “demilitarized zone” was the geographical area separating the territories of North and South Vietnam in which both sides agreed to withdraw forces.
4.     Point Man
The “point man” assumed the especially dangerous position at the front of a group of advancing troops. In this role, they were often the first to encounter enemy, traps, and other hazards.
5.     Radio Man
Tasked with an essential but dangerous job, the “radio man” served on the front lines making necessary communications such as requests for support from other units, location and situation reports, and calls to medical evacuation teams. This was an especially dangerous position because the enemy could easily identify them by the radio antennae and would target them so they couldn’t call for support.
6.     Sit-Rep
Short for situation report, a “sit-rep” was provided at regular intervals or when the circumstances warranted updates between field units and supervisors.  A “negative sit-rep” meant the unit had nothing to report.
7.     Tunnel Rat
A “tunnel rat” took on a special, unconventional role: to search through enemy tunnels and underground bunkers in search of usable intelligence or materials, and destroy those tunnels and bunkers once they had been searched. Tunnel rats were often small in stature which enabled them to navigate the close and confined spaces. They risked encounters with booby traps, enemy forces, and other hazards.
8.     LRRP (pronounced: lurp)
A “long-range reconnaissance patrol” was a small and specialized group of men that travelled deep into enemy territory. While in place, these men would gather intelligence, rescue downed air crews, and engage the enemy as needed.
9.     KP
“Kitchen patrol” was a less-than-favorable duty given to junior service members, or sometimes, assigned as a disciplinary measure for minor infractions. Also known as mess hall duty, a day on KP might have looked like prepping food, washing dishes, or monitoring the dining area.
10.  FNG
A “f%#@!$ new guy” was the newcomer to a unit, aircraft, or ship. He was nearly always the target of relentless teasing and ridicule.
11.  LT/Butter Bar
A nickname prankishly given to the lowest ranking officer (the second lieutenant or ensign), “butter bar” gets its name from the uniform rank insignia, which has a yellow color like a single, solid stick of butter.
12.  Ring Knocker
Officers who received their commission after attending a military academy were sometimes called Ring Knockers, as some would often wear their Academy class rings and knock them on the table so others would admire them for their awesomeness.  This distinction and bond was enviable by some and abhorred by others. 
13.  Brown-water Navy
Patrolling the inland waterways of North Vietnam, the “brown-water Navy” were successful in its mission to stop the North Vietnam from using the South Vietnamese coast and rivers to move supplies and weapons during the Vietnam War. A Navy service member engaged in patrolling these waterways was sometimes called a “River Rat.”
14.  Blue-water Navy
Unlike the brown-water Navy, the blue-water Navy was comprised largely of ships unable to navigate in the shallower waters.  These ships would carry out off-shore bombardment, launch and recover aircraft, and support brown-water and shore units often outside the territorial waters of Vietnam.
15.  Bravo-Zulu (BZ)
“Bravo-Zulu,” especially used by the Navy, originated from the Naval Flags for Bravo and Zulu. It sends a congratulatory message to the receiver: Well Done!
16.  FOB
The Forward Operating Base was a smaller base forward from the main bases. They generally had fewer amenities and basic provisions. 
17.  FSB
The Fire Support Base was a temporary military outpost placed to increase artillery coverage into areas of Vietnam that could not normally be hit from artillery placed on main bases, FOBs or ships.
18.  Boonies
If a service member was trudging through the “boonies,” they were travelling through the swampy or forested areas of Vietnam. They usually were said to be “out in the boonies” away from operating bases or any comforts like hot meals, clean water, showers or cots to sleep on.
19.  Spider Hole
A “spider hole” was a foxhole dug in the ground just large enough for one troop to crouch into before covering the top of the hole with a camouflaged cover and staking out, waiting for movement, and observing enemy forces.
20.  Bouncing Betty
Nickname given to the type of mine or explosive device that when tripped would launch into the air before detonating.
21.  Agent Orange
In order to provide defensible space near bases, FOBs, FSBs, and the river fronts, the United States used herbicides to kill the forest and understory plants and grasses.  The most widely used chemical was nicknamed “Agent Orange” due to the color painted on the barrels it would come in.  It was extremely effective but has had long-term effects on our veterans, their children, and the Vietnamese people.
22.  Arc Light
Code name for B-52 bomber strikes. These operations shook the earth for ten miles away from the target area. The B-52 often would drop 500 lb. bombs from 30,000’ altitude.  The bombs would hit in a row up to 100 yards long, often referred to as “carpet bombing.”
23.  POW/MIA
Those Americans who were captured as prisoners were designated as Prisoners of War. At the conclusion of the war, many of these prisoners and others who had gone missing would be classified as Missing in Action.  Today, 1,582 Americans are still considered MIA.  The last of the POWs were returned in 1973.
24.  Hanoi Hilton
The “Hanoi Hilton” was a nickname given to the most widely known North Vietnamese prison for US prisoners of war; the Vietnamese name was “Hỏa Lò Prison.”
25.  Ho Chi Minh Trail
The “Ho Chi Minh Trail” was a complex system of paths and trails throughout the Vietnam peninsula used by North Vietnamese forces to transport soldiers, weapons, and supplies throughout North Vietnam and even into South Vietnam territory.  It took over a month for North Vietnamese forces to march to South Vietnam on the trail.
26.  Ruck/Rucksack
A lightweight backpack issued to infantry in Vietnam. Once filled with necessary resources such as water, food, and clothes, weapons, ammo, and hand grenades, “rucks” could weigh up to 85 lbs.
27.  Tiger suits
Given that much of the Vietnam War was fought in dense jungles, it only made sense that camouflaged uniforms adapted to the environment. “Tiger suits” were specialized uniforms camouflaged to resemble tiger stripes.
28.  Boonie hat
To keep both rain and sun off a service member’s face, Vietnam service members often wore “boonie hats” with wide brims and camouflaged patterns.  These were soft and cloth, as opposed to steel-pot helmets. Modern and fashionable versions of the boonie hat are called “bucket hats.”
29.  Beaucoup
“Beaucoup” (pronounced ‘bowkoo’) is a French term meaning ‘many,’ ‘plenty’ or ‘too much.’ It was adapted by American and allied soldiers and used widely in Vietnam.
30.  Boondoggle
Someone who uses this word is certainly not speaking highly of a military operation; a “boondoggle” was used to describe an operation that is absurd or useless, or not completely thought out.  It might also be a questionable official reason or excuse to go someplace or do something that is needlessly decadent, like having a mysterious “hydraulic leak” on an aircraft that caused the crew to spend an unexpected 5 days in Hawaii waiting for maintenance.
31.  Spooky
The AC-47, nicknamed “Spooky,” was the Vietnam-era aircraft that proved fixed-wing planes (as opposed to rotary-wing like helicopters) had a place in providing close air support in combat.  The Spooky had a big gun sticking out the side.  The airplane would circle while the gun provided accurate and overwhelming fire support to a unit on the ground or to attack a target.
32.  Huey
If Vietnam is the helicopter war, the “Huey” was the helicopter.  The Bell UH-1 Iroquois was the multipurpose helicopter used by all service branches for all types of missions in Vietnam.  It would transport troops, materials, and casualties.  It could provide reconnaissance and fire support.  Some Hueys were even used to spray Agent Orange and other defoliants.  The sound of a Huey is synonymous with the war.
33.  Dustoff
A “Dustoff” unit put the Huey to use for medical purposes. “Dustoff” or “Dusty” often was part of the callsign for the medevac aircraft missions.  Dustoff crews typically consisted of four people: two pilots, a medic and a crew chief, who would receive requests from combat units requesting a medevac and navigate toward them as quickly as possible to provide relief and transportation to the closest in-theater hospital.
34.  Birds
A “bird” was a service member’s way of saying “ aircraft,” often referring to a helicopter or chopper.
35.  REMF
This derogatory term referred to someone who service in rear areas away from the fighting and the danger.  Hence the term meaning “rear eschelon mother f%#@!$.”
36.  DAP
Vietnam service members often developed handshakes that went above and beyond the typical by inclusion of snaps, slaps, shakes, and sometimes even a hug or a jump. The elaborate handshakes gave troops a sense of unity and community, and are still used to this day.
37.  Donut Dollie
A volunteer with the Red Cross, a “Donut Dollie” was a woman who volunteered to travel to Vietnam to boost morale amongst soldiers by handing out donuts, facilitating games, or simply chit-chatting.  They were recognizable by the light blue dresses they wore, even while visiting forward base camps or “fire bases.”
38.  Care package
Family, friends, and loved ones who wanted to show their gratitude for their service member oversees could do so by sending a “care package:” a box of goodies that might include cookies, candy, newspapers, coffee, or any other reminders of home.
39.  Short-Timer’s Stick
It was not uncommon for service members to engage in rituals and superstitions when they became a “short-timer”: someone with just a short period of service time left in their deployment before returning home.  One common ritual was making a “short-timer’s stick,” or taking a long stick and notching in it for each of his remaining days in Vietnam. By the time he could go home, the short-timer’s stick was just a stub.
40.  Freedom Bird
This Vietnam-era term has a meaning as uplifting as the name would imply; a “freedom bird” was the aircraft that brought a service member home at the end of their tour of duty.