Civil War Slang Gets a Whole Category on the Quiz Show Jeopardy!

On Wednesday, February 19, 2014, Jeopardy! devoted a whole category to Civil War slang during the semi-final matches of the 2014 College Championship tournament. The category appeared in the 2nd or Double Jeopardy! round.

The contestants got the first two clues:

$400 – from the Latin for life, vittles meant this. WHAT IS FOOD?
$800 – A picket was someone on this duty. WHAT IS GUARD? (also, SENTRY)

The last 3 clues stumped all three students. Nobody attempted an answer on:

$1200 – A Confederate soldier could be called by this first name, whether he was “marching home” or not. WHAT IS JOHNNY.

Alex Trebek mentioned “Johnny Reb” and the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” That song, however, was sung on both sides of the conflict and did not specifically refer to the Boys in Gray. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were the stereotypes for the two sides. Like most 2 word nicknames, they eventually got reduced to one word and it was not uncommon at all to refer to a Confederate soldier as Johnny. Union soldiers weren’t called Billy though. That was reduced to just Yank.

Merle Kilgore wrote a song named “Johnny Reb” that was recorded by rockabilly singer Johnny Horton in 1959 and went to No. 10 on the country charts.

$1600 – A Union soldier could be called this, now found before “Trade Commission.” WHAT IS FEDERAL?

Sort of a trick question there. Especially after the previous clue, which really was slang. Besides being called Yanks, Union soldiers were referred to as the Boys in Blue and as Doodles.

There were also slang terms for side switchers: A copperhead was a northerner with sympathy for the South, and a galvanized Yankee was a Southerner who took the oath and served in the Union army.

$2000 – Now it’s slang for any bad situation; back then it was a foraging soldier. WHAT IS A BUMMER?

According to “War Slang: American Fighting Words & Phrases Since the Civil War”, a bummer was a deserter or a predatory soldier, but eventually came to have a broader meaning to include “the destructive horde of deserters, stragglers, runaway slaves and marauders who helped make life miserable in the war-torn South.” There were some specific types of bummers, such as Sherman’s Bummers, who robbed pillaged and burned along with Sherman’s army in Georgia; and there were hospital bummers, who faked illness to get out of duty and into a military hospital. The term was not shortened to “bum” until around 1870. “War Slang” says “It is almost certainly a modification of the German Bummler (loafer).” The slang meaning of bummer today began with the advent of bad trips from hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s.

While “bummer” was evolving into plain old bum, another term sprang up for former Civil War soldiers which differentiates them from the lazy loafer and common bum. “Weary Willies” were Civil War vets who wandered about the land, setting up makeshift shelters for themselves, existing on handouts. The term at least acknowledges that they had been through an ordeal. The Civil War connection got a bit lost when circus performer Emmett Kelley created his famous “Weary Willie” character during the Great Depression. But the term reconnected with the Civil War in a 1970 episode of the TV Western “Bonanza.” The Cartwrights allowed a group of Weary Willies to set up camp on Ponderosa land but the townfolk weren’t particularly happy about it.

Some other terms with origins in the Civil War include a mugger, which meant a prisoner who preyed on fellow prisoners. By the war’s end, the term was applied to anyone who attacks someone with the intent of robbery. Bounty jumpers were entirely different than bummers. they were men who were paid to enlist as a substitute for someone else. They would then desert and enlist against as a substitute for another person.

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1 Response

  1. Luis Marrero says:

    Weary Willies. Were they the first documented cases of PTSD?

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