Grunt Lingo: Chow

lots of chicken on a lunch tray

Waiting around is just part of being in the Army. And when the only thing you’re waiting on is an arbitrary date and a wake-up, life tends to revolve around chow. “Chow” is the military’s catch-all term for food. You’re never going to breakfast, lunch, or dinner; you’re going to “chow.”

I hate chow.

Or rather, I hate the term “chow.”

I heard it on my first day in the Army, bitter Drill Sergeants at 30th AG telling us they’d get us “through chow” as soon we got off the bus. I understood that they meant we’d be eating, but I had only ever heard the word chow spoken in reference to dog food.

The sign above the door clearly read “Dining Facility” but the Drill Sergeant insisted on calling it the “chow hall.”

Years would pass, and I’d eat chow every day, telling others I was going to chow. At worst, I’d insist to my wife that we “grab some chow” before beginning the day’s adventures on a vacation.

There is something about the ultra-utilitarian nature of the word, stripping food down to its most basic element, nourishment, that makes it so unappealing. Despite its poor reputation, military food can be quite good at times, and by calling it chow, it somehow manifests itself in my mind as slop or gruel to be shoveled onto a flimsy tray before spilling over onto my hand and the floor.

It’s a term I’ve never heard people outside of the military use, yet it persists within and outside of the military among veterans with a stranglehold unparalleled compared to other military terms, like “squared-away” or “latrine.” When I was attending college with other veterans, we’d grab each other up – some of us separated from the service by over a decade – to go down to the halal cart on the corner to grab “chow.”

Its pervasiveness is absolute, and I don’t know its history or when it started, though I’d guess that it goes back to at least the Vietnam era, where we get a lot of our best terminology.

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