Right now I am reading Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach, and I started to consider the word grunt and why it’s used to refer to infantrymen in the military. As per usual, I had to do some digging and found that grunt has been used as far back as the early 1900s in reference to a person who does menial, low-level labor. This is not surprising given that grunt is often the type of low, gutteral noise a person makes while performing this type of work.
Grunt was used as military slang during Vietnam and first appeared in print in this context in 1969. It wasn’t until 1977, however, that grunt work was used in print. Some hypotheses on why grunt became widely used in the military is because infantrymen, or grunts, often perform physically demanding, difficult but not mentally challenging menial work. A soldier might also make a grunting sound when shouldering a heavy weapon.
There were many untrained soldiers sent to the front lines in WWII, due to mass casualties. The soldiers brought in were referred to as grunts. There is also an acronym, which most likely came AFTER soldiers were already referred to as grunts – General Replacement UNTrained soldiers – or GRUNTs.
Oftentimes, we see words that started as just words and then were later purported to have been acronyms. For instance, the word fuck is often falsely explained as an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King. In fact, the word fuck predates the recorded history of acronyms altogether so there is no possible way it could have begun as an acronym. If you want a military acronym, you can look to SNAFU – Situation Normal All Fucked Up, which is much more entertaining, anyway.
Along my search, I also stumbled upon a new-to-me word, sobriquet. It’s pronounced with a hard t (even though it looks like bouquet, it’s pronounced more like briquette). A sobriquet is a fancy-sounding word for a nickname, something like a grunt, for instance instead of infantrymen.