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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

go commando

(1990’s | teenagese?)

This evocative verb phrase is more of a head-scratcher than most, and I’m scratching as hard as anyone. There does not seem to be any convincing reason why “go commando” should mean “go without underwear.” The most common explanation found on-line is that commandos (see below) don’t wear underwear because it’s too much trouble keeping it clean when you’re on a mission, because it causes jungle rot, or because ferocious Scots warriors went without under their kilts. The problem is that even if it’s true that special forces never wear underwear, the reasons adduced for scanting scanties are not specific to commandos, but shared by all soldiers. I guess it sounds better than “go doughboy” or “go GI” or “go grunt,” but the association with the ilk of Navy SEALS seems fanciful at best. The expression does seem to be used more often of men than women; accordingly, it is not generally used to mean “go without a bra.” It’s the lower story.

The first citation in the OED dates from 1974, but it doesn’t start showing up in LexisNexis until 1996, when it was cited in a list of slang terms current among college students. More to the point, it was used on “Friends” by Joey (played by Matt LeBlanc) early that same year, which seems to have provided the impetus for “go commando” to enter our vocabulary. The phrase needed several years before it could be used without quotation marks and glosses, but most people recognize it by now. There is some dispute over whether the phrase is of British origin (probably not). The word “commando” goes back to the Boer War, where it referred to a raid or one who participated in the raid; the word comes originally from Afrikaans. Certain British troops were called “commandos” during World War II, and from there it entered American vocabulary. If “go commando” meant anything fifty years ago, it meant “act like a commando” — notably brave, relentless, or capable of quick, decisive action. Today, “commando” has a slightly musty sound, and the armed services don’t use it, at least not in the U.S. But we continue to honour the valour of those daring English soldiers who carried out assassinations and rescues behind enemy lines by naming an eccentric sartorial practice after them.

Maybe that word “daring” forms the bridge, as lovely Liz from Queens suggests. Going without underwear requires a devil-may-care defiance of convention and homely wisdom; forget everything you learned about what to wear in case you’re in an accident. It also suggests forgoing protection or a degree of safety, demonstrating courage and nerve, in which qualities commandos are unmatched. There is something exciting about dispensing with drawers — I remember in high school one of the more advanced boys (he had moved east from California) bragged to a girl that he wasn’t wearing any (unfortunately, I can’t remember exactly how he said it, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with commandos); he lowered his waistband an inch or two to demonstrate. The girl was suitably impressed. But whatever the cachet, it is a deeply personal decision, and many of us find forgoing that bottom layer uncomfortable or unhygienic.

Some on-line sources identify “freeballing” as a pre-1980 equivalent. It’s not a word I know, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Otherwise, I’m not sure there was an old word for it. And now we have one — language marches on. I’d like to thank lovely Martha from Queens for giving me this week’s subject! Always a pleasure to hear from my dedicated readers.

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