Fighter Pilot Linguistic Games, so to speak

Profanity is not the only vice with which a Christian fighter pilot’s senses will be bombarded.  Standard fighter pilot lingo is laced with various forms of sexual innuendo, most through the use of linguistic games.  The most frequent fighter pilot linguistic “skill” is the phrase “so to speak” (often written as “sts”).  The phrase follows any sentence that can in any way, shape, or form be construed as a double entendre; the frequency of the phrase in a fighter pilot’s speech indicates how often he can come up with a sexual reference in virtually any combination of words in the English language.  If a pilot uses a phrase that is worthy of a “so to speak” because of its potential double meaning, other pilots in the room will generally say “so to speak” and cajole those who do not. 

Another less vulgar use of the “so to speak” phrase is in reference to the “misuse” of a pilot’s name.  For example, in the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s weapons system officer had the nickname Goose.  If another pilot said that they had to “goose the power,” a fighter pilot would suffix the phrase with “so to speak” to acknowledge the use of Goose’s callsign.


Another fighter pilot linguistic skill is replacing certain words that have a possible sexual connotation with their generic or scientific equivalent.  This is not to avoid but rather highlight them.  Without stooping to an illicit explanation, a generic example would be a fighter pilot using cranium in place of the word head, because head could have a sexual connotation.  Instead of saying someone fell and hit their head, a fighter pilot would say someone fell and hit their cranium.

The Christian Fighter Pilot and Linguistic Games

I believe there is the potential for significant negative impact on a Christian pilot’s life should he participate in fighter pilot linguistic games.  I recommend strongly against “so to speak” and replacing words with a scientific equivalent because participating in these fighter pilot “traditions” requires constantly thinking in sexual undertones.  Every phrase a pilot utters is first filtered against sexual connotation, both innocent and illicit.  The thought process becomes part of the subconscious, and a pilot will soon find himself analyzing his pastor’s sermon for potential sexual innuendo, or saying “so to speak” in the presence of his wife, children, and mother.  A Christian fighter pilot should not put himself in the position of explaining to his family that he said “so to speak” because of the sexual innuendo he just perceived.  How would he explain to his child that he uses an unusual word for something because of its potential sexual connotation?

I have known Christian fighter pilots who allowed themselves to use “so to speak” in reference to the misuse of other pilots’ names but not in the sexual way.  This is an example of where I and another Christian pilot differed in what we would and would not participate.  I personally believed that if I allowed myself to use that phrase in some circumstances and not in others, I would run the risk of failing in my mental gymnastics and using it when I should not.  I understand that there is no true harm in saying “so to speak” to acknowledge the use of another pilot’s name; but it draws me dangerously close to a phraseology and habit pattern in which I think there is true harm.  For me, refusing to use “so to speak” or replace words with their scientific equivalent means that I fail to acknowledge any potential innuendo in my language; this keeps my own mind out of the gutter—which benefits my spiritual well-being—and it is another way that I distinguish my speech from the non-Christian, in much the same way I do by not using profanity.

Biblical Basis

The use of “so to speak” or singing songs laced with innuendo is obviously not specifically addressed in the “Thou shalt nots” of the Bible.  The most explicit instruction comes from Ephesians, where Paul instructs the church of Ephesus in aspects of Christian living:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.  Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving (5:4).

In his instructions, Paul’s reference to coarse joking does not imply a lack of humor but is in reference to what Christians “know” are dirty jokes—nowhere in the Bible does it say Christians can’t be funny.  Paul says to the Ephesians—and the lesson can apply to Christians today, too—that there must not even be an intimation, not even a perception, of sexual immorality or impurity in their lives; Paul’s reason is that such behavior is unfitting for God’s people.  Because He is holy, His followers should strive to be holy (Leviticus 11:44, quoted in 1 Peter 1:16).  God has called Christians to be holy, and Paul’s list of vices is certainly not a pattern of sacred behavior.

If Paul says that sexual immorality, impurity, obscenity, and coarse joking are unfit for the people of God, what does that say for a fighter pilot who thinks through a sexual “so to speak” filter and sings songs that cover the gamut of those very vices?  By participating in such behavior Christians are not acting as God’s people should; this is not only an affront to God, but it is a contradiction that will actually undermine a Christian’s witness.  Non-Christians will seize on the inconsistency of an unholy Christian to criticize the hypocrisy of his faith.
The Biblical instructions for a Christian’s speech are actually one step more directive.  In Ephesians Paul also says,

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (4:29).

While the previous instructions have been what a Christian should not do, the second half of this verse describes what his speech should do:  it should be only that which builds up and benefits those who listen.  A Christian’s speech should be limited to that which improves, enlightens, and uplifts morally and spiritually.  The simple filter that a Christian should use for his speech must be, “Is it edifying?”  A Christian fighter pilot that uses a different “filter”—because of a different worldview—will distinguish himself without separating himself from non-Christians.

While the public perception of a Christian’s speech is important, there is another reason for him to control his thoughts and words:  “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  That which men speak on the outside is a reflection of who they are on the inside.  Fighter pilot songs focus a pilot’s thoughts on carnal things; the use of “so to speak” and word replacement forces his every thought to be filtered through a sexual paradigm.  This focus on base thoughts is injurious to a Christian’s internal spiritual life and will be reflected on his external.  A Christian cannot help but become what he is thinking, which is why Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (4:8).

The content of the heart dictates the words of the mouth, so a Christian should think about praiseworthy things not only because of the people around him but also because of the impact it has within himself.  Jesus also spoke about the reflection on the outside of an internal spiritual state when he said

…the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him (Matthew 12:35).

People store up the things to which they are exposed—things they read, watch on TV, study for school, and hear on the radio.  Often they do so subconsciously; ever wonder why people suddenly find themselves whistling the songs they heard on the radio hours ago?  In the same way, if a Christian does not actively work against it, he stores up inside his heart the profane phrases, sexual innuendo, and vulgar songs to which he is exposed in his life as a fighter pilot.  Unless he actively works against it, from this internal storage comes his external action.  Jesus continued to warn “that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (v36).  Ultimately, when men stand before God they will be held accountable for every word—however casual or thoughtless—they have said.  When it comes to the fighter pilot world of profanity and sexual innuendo, a Christian has been called to Christ and must live a life worthy of his Savior.  Would Jesus approve of the way he thinks and speaks in his fighter pilot life?

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One comment

  • Your section on “Cranium?” leaves out an essential part, as I understand it. The avoidance of any sexual reference was specifically for a remote assignment, where a pilot was sequestered for up to a year at a time without the “services” of his wife or girlfriend. This may have started in Vietnam but definitely proliferated in Korea. The idea was that you weren’t supposed to remind your brethren of this with terms that could be construed in any way to have a sexual meaning. In practice, it only highlighted it and became nothing but a game. The problem became, though, that it continued on after leaving a remote assignment to all other places a fighter pilot flew. It became such a problem in at least one squadron in Korea that the commander mandated the “game” stop because it was negatively affecting communication in the air as some pilots stumbled over their radio calls trying not to come up with the wrong word. That particular commander, unfortunately, was not liked because of that.
    I personally made a point of NOT continuing the practice after leaving Korea and encouraged my fellow pilots do the same.
    Andy, F-16s retired