Lexical Investigations: Camouflage


Before it was a military term, camouflage was French street-slang popular among pickpockets and other shadowy figures in 1870s Paris. A combination of the Italian word camuffare (to disguise) and the French word camouflet (puff of smoke), this word described a common practice among thieves: staging an attractive woman who would blow smoke in the face of an intended target, which was both sexually suggestive at the time and distracting enough that the thief could snag the mark’s wallet.

During World War I, British troops in France found the word extremely useful. Because of the rise of airplanes, concealment of soldiers and equipment on the ground was of paramount importance. Newspapers defined camouflage for their readers, and as a result it was widely known by civilians by the end of the war. The word continued to gain traction, eventually appearing in non-military contexts, such as Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas in 1960.

While concealment usually comes to mind when people talk about camouflage, there is another type of camouflage—disruptive camouflage—that works in a completely different way. One example found in nature are the stripes found on a zebra. While zebra stripes certainly don’t work to blend each individual creature into its surroundings, when travelling in a herd, these black-and-white patterns make it extremely difficult for predators to distinguish where one tasty zebra begins and where another one ends.

The concept of disruptive camouflage was applied to protect US and British ships in the early 1900s. Naval ships were painted with bold striped patterns to make it difficult to tell which direction they were traveling to make out individual ships in a fleet. This specific type of disruptive camouflage is called Razzle Dazzle.

Popular References:

“Camouflage,” song by country music star Brad Paisley (2011)

Camouflage is a Harbinger Kid, a comic book character in the Valiant Universe.

Camouflage, German New Wave band. Billboard Hot 100 hit “The Great Commandment” in 1988. Topped the dance charts.500 Years of New Words, Bill Sherk, 2004 A Martial medley: fact and fiction (Google eBook), by Conal O’Riordan, 1931. Sticklers, Sideburns & Bikinis: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases. Graeme Donald. Osprey Publishing, 2008

Relevant Quotations:

“A battery in the open that is not protected in any way by camouflage is bound to be shelled very heavily.”

—Army War College (U.S.), Camouflage for the Troops of the Line (1920)

“Blending wood tones camouflage size.”

Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas (1960)

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the word echelon.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.)
Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
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