Q&A: “Camouflage”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having lessons in disguise…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been thinking about French words a lot lately.

A: Très bien. Any in particular?

Q: I was curious about where the word “camouflage” came from?

A: What word?

Q: Camouflage.

A: Hmmmm we can’t seem to find it.

Q: Huh? It’s— oh ha ha, very funny.

A: Thanks. Anyway, yes it’s from French, and it first appeared in English in 1917 – from “camoufler”, which was Parisian slang for “to disguise”.

Q: Well that makes sense, and 1917 was during World War I.

A: Yes it was, so you can imagine it all came about through necessity. 

Q: A four-year game of deadly hide and seek?

A: Exactly. According to the Popular Science Monthly magazine of August 1917, entire paragraphs were previously used to explain the specific war tactic of hiding things in plain sight. To simplify things, the word “camouflage” was chosen, meaning “fooling the enemy”.

Q: It may have been the first world war, but it wasn’t the FIRST war ever. So why hadn’t there been a word to describe that kind of stuff before?

A: Good question. There were two main factors.

Q: The moustaches were longer?

A: Nope.

Q: The Wifi was terrible?

A: Well yes, but also no. It was the invention of the plane – meaning that air reconnaissance could be done by the enemy – snapping photos of military positions. As a result, things like tanks and trains and guns were all painted to blend into the surrounding environment. Even roads were painted to make them tricky to see from above.

Q: Clever!

A: Yep. The other thing that made a lot of camouflage necessary was the open style warfare – large fields without hiding places. Things like shrubbery were used to hide guns and soldiers. Even burnt out trees were hollowed for hiding spots for snipers.

Q: Sneaky!

A: War tends to speed up innovation when lives are on the line.

Q: True.

A: It was even done at sea by the British Navy – although they called it “dazzle painting” (the camouflage name hadn’t taken hold yet). By painting the hulls of their ships in weird shapes and combos of blue, grey and white they could “dazzle” submarines by making it difficult for them to detect the size of approaching ships.

Q: But surely nature has been camouflaging for millions of years to survive. Stick insects, zebras, polar bears, , , , , chameleons.

A: Why all the commas?

Q: Sing along! Comma comma comma comma comma chameeeeeleon!

A: We walked right into that…

Q: You sure did.

A: But it’s a good point about nature. In 1909, military leaders had all read a book published by an American zoologist called Abbott Thayer about this very thing – called Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. He proposed similar shading techniques be applied to boats. The war came along not long after.

Q: Okay, so what about the shortened term “camo” – when do we see that?

A: This is typically used solely as an adjective in the fashion pattern sense. 

Q: So that splotchy greeny brown pattern on “camo pants” – was that not a thing before this time?

A: Khaki coloured clothes – a dusty green colour, from “khak” (the Persian word for dust) had been around since the 1850s. But nope, nothing in that multicoloured form existed in military uniforms until the Germans tried it in World War II.

Q: Putting the SS into claSSy daywear…

A: Indeed. Wearing army style “camo” gear became popular with the public in the 1960s – but this was initially just the “Che Guevara” style khaki green outfits. It wasn’t till the 1990s that camo patterns found their way from the military barracks to the fashion houses.

Q: I suppose they would have been hard to spot until then!

A: Good point.

Q: Is “camouflage” the only word in English that ends in “–flage”?

A: As Yoda once said, there is another. “Persiflage” is a type of light, good natured banter or frivolous discussion of a subject.

Q: Oh, so that’s basically us every week?

A: Actually… Yeah! 

Q: Good to know. So to recap, “camouflage” was taken from the French during World War I. 

A: Sure, but not in a “priceless Art in a Swiss bank vault” kind of way.

Q: And these days, “camo” might be used to describe military camouflage gear or my “camo green jacket” or “camo-style cargo pants”. 

A: Yep. And of course you no longer need a war or a nature documentary for something to be camouflaged. As Macquarie Dictionary summarises, it’s the means by which any object or creature renders itself indistinguishable from its background, as by assuming the colour, shape, or texture of objects in that background.”

Q: Like Homer Simpson in that “disappearing into the hedge” meme? 

A: Yes that’s exac— wait, where did you go?

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