You might have noticed that the world didn’t end on Dec. 21. Despite apocalyptic readings of the ancient Maya calendar, that date failed to usher in TEOTWAWKI.
No, TEOTWAWKI isn’t some fearsome Maya deity. It’s actually an acronym (pronounced “tee-ought-walk-ee”) that stands for “The end of the world as we know it.” And it is used in all seriousness, online and in real life, by survivalists preparing for a variety of doomsday scenarios, known colloquially as “preppers.”
Even if the Maya apocalypse was a bust, the numbers of preppers are burgeoning and seem likely only to grow in 2013. “Welcome to the doom boom,” declares a prepper exposé in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. And the media limelight has expanded along with the subculture; this year, the reality television show “Doomsday Preppers” became the National Geographic Channel’s highest-rated series of all time. All of this (not entirely welcome) attention has exposed a loose-knit network of survivalism buffs, joined together by a lingo all their own.
Befitting a movement that takes its cues from military readiness exercises, prepper-ese is packed with more abbreviations than an Army handbook. Whether it’s a natural or man-made catastrophe, what are you going to do when TSHTF (the, uh, stuff hits the fan)? You better be ready with your BOB (bug-out bag), also known as your GOOD (get out of Dodge) kit. Oh, and if you’re never coming back from your BOL (bug-out location) in your BOV (bug-out vehicle), then you’re going to need an INCH (I’m never coming home) kit instead.
Much of this survivalist slang first started to percolate in the mid- to late ’90s, when fears grew that the Y2K “millennium bug” would disable the world’s computers as the calendar turned to 2000. TEOTWAWKI is first attested in a 1996 post by Mike Medintz in the Usenet newsgroup misc.survivalism, and it soon got picked up by Y2K “doomers.”
R.E.M.’s catchy 1987 song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” no doubt popularized the full expression, but it had actually been in use for about a century before that. As far back as 1889, a monograph on “thermal repulsion” and gravitational attraction closed with the ominous words, “The end of the world as we know it would come by an explosion or contraction, if either of these forces was suspended for an instant.”
Another variation, “the end of civilization as we know it” or TEOCAWKI, dates back to the outbreak of World War I, with the acronymic version surfacing as early as 1958. That year, it showed up in the British humor magazine Punch: “Will it not be rather boring for these men to stand year in year out, as one hopes, beside whopping great rockets that can only be let off in the event of TEOCAWKI?” “What was that word again?” “I beg your pardon—the end of civilization as we know it. One keeps slipping into these Army abbreviations.”
The run-up to Y2K (which turned out to be neither TEOTWAWKI nor TEOCAWKI) was also when the term “prepper” itself first began to show up in online forums. At the time, it might have seemed preferable to “survivalist,” which calls to mind “the nut job who lives out in the mountains by himself on the retreat,” as prepper Ron Douglas told The New York Times last month in an article on the phenomenon.
But now the term “prepper” is beginning to sour as well, thanks in large part to “Doomsday Preppers.” In the Mother Jones article, survivalist guru James Talmage Stevens, aka “Doctor Prepper,” concludes that “prepper” has turned into “a slur meant to impugn self-reliant folks like himself as paranoid loons.” The suffix “-er” doesn’t help, evoking such conspiracy-minded types as the “truthers” (who question the official explanation of the 9/11 attacks) and the “birthers” (who doubt the American citizenship of President Obama).
Regardless of what they call themselves, preppers can consult extended glossaries on such websites as Zombie Squad, which uses the “Zombie Apocalypse” (or “Zombocalypse”) as a metaphor for any potential large-scale calamity. The biggest lexicon is hosted by SurvivalBlog, the online home of James Wesley Rawles, author of the “Patriots” series of survivalist novels. (In another linguistic quirk, he writes his name “James Wesley, Rawles,” with a comma to distinguish given names belonging to him from a surname belonging to his family.)
Rawles, a former Army intelligence officer who blogs from an undisclosed location west of the Rockies, takes credit for a number of prepper coinages, including “GOOD kit.” Slang dictionaries pin the expression “get out of Dodge” to the mid-’60s, with the “Dodge” referring to Dodge City, Kansas, the setting for the popular TV Western “Gunsmoke.” “Bugging out” as a term for a hasty exit goes back to the Korean War, as do such expressions as “bug-out route.” Preppers have added a new twist: “bugging in,” or taking shelter in your own home when disaster strikes rather than heading for the hills.
The preppers’ jargon is snappy, emanating quasi-military discipline and embodying their acronymic motto, KISS (keep it simple, stupid). “Prepping,” after all, is about meticulously taking stock of what one might need for the aftermath of anything from a mega-earthquake to a nuclear detonation. As they organize their lives for the PAW (post-apocalyptic world), survivalists are evidently prepping their language as well.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of
VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.