On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet. National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together. This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.
We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets. It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.
The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’. Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they refer to the Army guys. It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.
Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century, meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theatres and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning smell. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual. Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory. (www.urbandictionary.com)
There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.
As per Appendix: Glossary of British military slang and expressions, an Army soldier is referred to as Pongo meaning “Everywhere the army goes, the pong (stink) goes”; derived from the supposed inferior washing facilities in field compared to those on a navy vessel.
Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF. Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army. They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but would dig holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of infantrymen. They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason. However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutan—the rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.
The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers would carry out all sorts of different tasks. One important (the most important… surely) task being the setting up of a brewery. The main part of it, the still (apparatus used to distill alcoholic spirits) being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who would be sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army. (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)
Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee. In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.
That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?
It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship would scramble to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible
Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated Magazine – October 1806, where it says ‘ The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet. “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?” said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines. “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’
Another reference to grabbies I found was from the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle. ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession. All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket. They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’
In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army. These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.‘
Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.
Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.