I usually strike a tone somewhere between humorous and ridiculous in these columns, but there won't be much silliness this time out: even a goof like myself has respect for Memorial Day.
This is one of two holidays that honor veterans. Veterans Day honors everyone who served in the military, while Memorial Day specifically honors veterans who died during their service. Still, it's hard not to think of veterans in general on Memorial Day, even ones who are still kicking, like my dad, who was a cryptographer in the army.
As we all take a day to honor sacrifices that are hard to comprehend, here's a look at some of the words you're most likely to hear and see around Memorial Day.
Practice the extended list Memorial Day: Words of Respect and Remembrance
The name of this holiday is a word closely related to memory. Memorials—such as the famous Lincoln Memorial—are there to help us remember people who died. There are memorials for all sorts of people, but memorials to veterans get a little extra respect, and for good reason. One of the most famous (and largest) memorials in the U.S. is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is two acres long and contains the names of everyone who died in that war.
A veteran is anyone who has served in some branch of the military such as the army, navy, air force, or marines. No matter how long someone served, they're a veteran. This word is also used for other types of experience, especially substantial experience. A teacher who's been chalking boards for decades can be called a veteran teacher. A basketball player who's been in the NBA for a while—say, 5-10 years—is often called a veteran. And if you've done anything for some time, this word can apply. World War II veteran (and co-creator of Captain America) Jack Kirby was also a veteran of comic book conventions, attending the famous San Diego Con many times during his life.
This common word has a specific military meaning that's a lot more important than the service you get at your local pizzeria. When you enter the military, you've entered the service, and you can call your time there military service. Many people say to veterans, "Thank you for your service." The idea is that joining the military isn't something you do for yourself, like becoming a lawyer or artist, but something done to serve your country. This is similar to the religious idea of service: that it's more important to help others than to make money and stare at your phone.
The military consists of the army, the navy, the marines, and all other government forces that go to war. General, captain, private, and ensign are all military ranks. The military's goal is to defend the county, but also to attack other countries when ordered. A frequently debated political topic is military spending: how much money should be spent on tanks, planes, bombs, and other military equipment? Some argue for a stronger military, while others will say more money should go elsewhere. Speaking of money, many people agree that not enough is ever spent helping veterans with their health care.
There are many types of drafts, such as a gust of wind or rough piece of writing. But the military version is a lot more significant: a draft selects people for the military. If you're drafted, you have to enter the service, unless you don't pass the medical exams. Some people—especially people with political connections—finagle their way into a deferment, meaning they delay their service, often indefinitely. Another way that some have avoided the draft is by being a conscientious objector: someone philosophically opposed to violence in general or a specific war that seems unjustified.
A draft brings people into the military, whether they want to join or not. The U.S. has had a draft at different points in history, most recently during the Vietnam era when we were sending an enormous number of troops over there. Whether there's a draft or not, people can volunteer for the military: if you volunteer, you enlist. This word can also be used to describe recruiting other people. A new enlistee in the navy could then try to enlist others: in other words, encourage them to join too.
This French borrowing entered English in the 1500s: it refers to a group of soldiers, usually infantrymen. Often a platoon is made of various squadrons or squads—a platoon is bigger than a squad, but smaller than a company. Soldiers who served in the same platoon share a special bond.
To sacrifice something is to give it up, and this is one of the most important words relating to Memorial Day, which honors people who sacrificed their lives. Dying in war is often called the ultimate sacrifice. In a world where most people are all about me, me, and me, this type of sacrifice is hard to imagine.
Learn these words well. There are many ways to honor the people who died in combat: one is to understand their vocabulary.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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