STRAC, a military acronym — and backronym

While reading Robert Crais’s detective novel L.A. Requiem, I came across an unfamiliar word (italics in the original):

First thing McConnell noticed was that this young officer was strac. His uniform spotless, the creases in his pants and shirt sharp, the black leather gear and shoes shined to a mirror finish. Pike was a tall man, as tall as Krantz, but where Krantz was thin and bony, Pike was filled out and hard, his shirt across his back and shoulders and upper arms pulled taut.

What followed the mention of strac implied its probable meaning, but to satisfy my curiosity I had to look it up. First port of call was Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary, which says it’s a US military acronym for Strategic Army Corps. I might have guessed this had the term been used in upper case.

United States Coast Guard Academy graduationStrac gave rise to stract – the headword in Green’s entry – a US prison usage from the 1990s meaning “neat and clean in appearance and dress”. Wiktionary’s glossary of military slang suggests an overlap, saying STRAC is US Army slang for:

“a well organized, well turned-out soldier, (pressed uniform, polished brass and shined boots).” A proud, competent trooper who can be depended on for good performance in any circumstance.

Chambers has a helpful note on the term’s history, quoting Dave Wilton on the American Dialect Society email list:

“STRAC.” Originally an [sic] 1950s acronym for Strategic Army Corps, a group of four elite divisions maintained at a high readiness for overseas deployment. It began to be used as an adjective, to be “STRAC” was to be prepared [...] After the demise of the Corps, the adjectival use hung on. A new, unofficial backronym was formed for it, “Skilled, Tough, Ready, Around the Clock.” It was very common in the US Army of the 1980s.

There’s no entry in the American Heritage Dictionary or Shorter OED, while offerings in the usual online spots are meagre. Urban Dictionary has two entries for “Skilled, Tough, Ready Around the Clock”, and one for “Strong, Tough, Ready Around the Clock”. For STRACT, Wikipedia offers “Strategically Ready And Combat Tough”, and says STRAC units

were those designated to be on high alert to move anywhere in 72 hours or less; as slang, means tight, together, by the book; when said with sarcasm by a combat unit about a REMF (rear echelon mother fuckers) unit it refers to stupid soldiers without combat experience.

There are even more alternatives listed at the Acronym Finder, some presumably backronyms, including “Standing Tall Right Around the Clock” and “Strategic, Tactical and Ready for Action in Combat”.

But the narrower, appearance-related meaning – phonetically suggestive of strict, sharpstraight, smart and strapping – is an interesting development. UD’s sole entry for stract has negative connotations: “overly concerned with standards and minute detail”, but these may not extend beyond one person’s impressions.

[image of U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduation from Wikimedia Commons]
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26 Responses to STRAC, a military acronym — and backronym

  1. John Cowan says:

    I think this last stract is from abstract, according to an AAVE pattern of dropping unstressed initial syllables in hifalutin words. There is a story about a black American protester in the 60s who, when asked why he ran from an unarmed process-server, replied They was gonna strain me, i.e. ‘serve me with a restraining order’, where strain was homophonous with AAVE strain ‘beat’. Sometimes the initial syllable is wrongly restored and given separate stress (from the perspective of Standard English), as in re-gusted ‘disgusted’.

  2. Stan says:

    John: I wouldn’t rule out apheresis, but I don’t see a sufficient connection in meaning.

    • John Cowan says:

      I meant the negative UD version, “overly concerned with standards and minute detail”, i.e. abstracted from Real World concerns like staying alive. But I certainly may be overdoing here.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    Happy 2013 Stan and I always learn something when visiting your blog!
    STRAC I’m not and never would want to be.
    XO
    WWW

  4. Dawn in NL says:

    My thought when I read your first line was the Dutch Strak. Here is the Van Dale translation dictionary’s definition:

    strak (bijvoeglijk naamwoord, bijwoord)
    1 zonder bochten/plooien
    tight (bijwoord: tightly)
    touw, zeil taut
    ▲ context
    een touw strak aantrekken/aanhalen
    pull/stretch a rope taut
    (honkbal) een strakke bal
    a line drive, a liner
    (figuurlijk) iemand strak houden
    keep a tight hand on someone, keep someone on a tight rein
    de snaren strakker spannen
    tighten the strings
    strak trekken
    stretch, pull tight
    strakker worden
    tighten, be drawn tight
    (honkbal) een strakke worp
    a fast ball

    2 onafgewend
    fixed (bijwoord: fixedly)
    set, intent
    ▲ context
    iemand strak aankijken
    fix (one’s gaze on) someone
    met strakke blik keek hij me aan
    ook he gazed at me intently, he looked hard at me
    ze hield haar blik strak op het podium gericht
    she kept her eyes fixed/nailed to the stage
    strak voor zich uit kijken
    sit staring (fixedly)

    3 geen gevoelens uitdrukkend
    fixed (bijwoord: fixedly)
    set
    streng stern
    gespannen tense
    ▲ context
    (figuurlijk) een strakke bouwstijl
    an austere style of architecture
    met een strak gezicht
    unsmiling, with a stony face
    een strakke glimlach
    a fixed/set/stern/tense smile
    (figuurlijk) strakke lijnen
    in kunst enz. taut lines/outlines

    4 onverzettelijk
    rigid (bijwoord: rigidly)
    ▲ context
    strak aan iets vasthouden
    stick to something, keep rigidly to something

    5 (informeel) geweldig
    well cool

  5. marc leavitt says:

    Hi Stan:
    When I was in the army in Europe during Viet Nam, “strac” had morphed into “straight troop,” used to a soldier who was hyper-neat about his uniform and gear.

  6. Stan says:

    WWW: Many happy returns. Strac is not a condition I’m normally to be found in, either!

    Dawn: Yes, Dutch strak is etymologically related to English stretch and various other Germanic words.

    Marc: Interesting. But did it come from strac somehow or do they just overlap in meaning, I wonder.

    • marc leavitt says:

      Stan:
      I kept coming back to “STRAC” during the day, and I realized that the fog of memory was in play. We didn’t refer to “straight troops”; we referred to “crack troops.” Apparently our ears translated the “str” consonant cluster into “cr.” Hadn’t thought about the phrase in years, al;though on reflection, I remembered that I often jokingly have referred to people as “crack troops.”

  7. Speaking of ‘crack troops’ I remember hearing the term crackerjack used as an adjective growing up, to mean those same sorts of things – extremely skillful.. dates back to 1893 according to this entry: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crackerjack.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc, Claire: Yes, that sense of crack appears also in crack hand, crack shot, crack regiment, etc. The OED says it dates to the late 18th century.

  9. [...] this month I wrote about the military acronym strac, which I came across in Robert Crais’s novel L. A. Requiem (1999). Something else I noticed in [...]

  10. CatoRenasci says:

    The term “strac” was certainly in use when I was at military college in the late ’60s and on active duty in the US Army in the mid-1970s. Unlike the acronyms from WWI such as SNAFU and FUBAR, I’m pretty sure the Chambers explanation is correct, and that the other references are “backronyms” (nice one that).

    It was almost always used in the context of military appearance – the fellow who looked the part of the perfect soldier with a very short ‘high and tight’ haircut, shoes or boots spit-shined to a mirror finish (in which one could (and I have) literally shave), perfectly tailored, starched and pressed uniform, superb military bearing, and, usually, punctilious about military courtesy.

    It had something of a dual context: those who were “super military” used it as a compliment, their highest accolade for the parade ground soldier. But for a larger number who were more combat oriented, or who were simply not as into ‘spit and polish’ the term had a slight pejorative meaning, implying a bit too much emphasis on the military externals and too little attention to the essence of soldiering.

    • CatoRenasci says:

      From: http://thisainthell.us/blog/?p=33252

      Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, writing about garrison life in the Strategic Army Corps (STRAC) in the early 1960s, said the acronym became Army slang for a well-organized, well turned-out soldier, but that style ended up overrunning substance.

      “STRAC was a state of being, a sharpness, a readiness and esprit de corps … [but] as often happens in the Army, we over did it,” he said. “Being STRAC came to mean looking sharp more than being combat ready.”

      This certainly squares with my impression in the ’60s and ’70s.

    • Stan says:

      Cato: That’s very helpful. Thanks for your thoughts on the nuances of strac‘s meaning and the slightly conflicting senses it gained.

  11. The first citation I could find is from Current Slang, a primarily college-generated publication, of 1971: ‘Strac trooper, n. A very military-looking soldier.‘ I assume it was picked up from on-campus ROTC members. I also note (though did not cite) this entry in G.R. Clark Words of the Vietnam War (1990): Strac (Strak, Strack) Military slang for a neat, clean, professional appearance or one who adheres to military rules, regulations and formalities. The st[r]ack trooper had spit shined shoes, sharp creases, a spotless uniform and every item in place. Sometimes referred to as ‘being squared away’ or ‘having your shit together’

    • Stan says:

      Jonathon, thanks a lot for these additional notes. Between the references I checked and the comments this post has received, I’ve learned a lot about the term.

  12. OJo says:

    STRAC, STRACed, STRAC’d…following the miltary’s preference for making acronyms plural, past tense, possessive (or whatever verb tense it needs to fit on the ppt slide). Verbally, ‘he’s STRACed’ or ‘that Command is really STRAC(ed?)’ would sound like stract

  13. G-Man says:

    I recall seeing something like “Be STRAC” at US Army Airborne school in the mid-80’s. If you do a search in google with airborne and strac you will find a variety of references. Wikipedia notes regarding the 101st Airborne the following: “In 1958 the US Army formed the Strategic Army Corps consisting of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions with a mission of rapid deployment at a moment’s notice.” That’s why STRAC was above the entryway of the airborne school because the goal was to go to an airborne unit following the training (ie the 82nd or the 101st).

    Another site (http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/25199-strac-patch/) notes the following:

    “STRAC was a designation given to the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1958. The designation was, in reality, the assignment of an additional mission rather than a true designation. The additional mission was to provide a flexible strike capability that could deploy worldwide on short notice without declaration of an emergency. The 4th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, and the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, were designated as STRAC’s first-line divisions, while the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, and the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg were to provide backup in the event of general war. The 5th Logistical Command (later inactivated), also at Fort Bragg, would provide the corps with logistics support, while Fort Bragg’s XVIII Airborne Corps Artillery would control artillery units.

    Although the STRAC mission was to provide an easily deployable force for use in a limited war or other emergency, its ability to deploy overseas was limited by airlift constraints. Without the declaration of a national emergency, the required lift assets would not be released to support a STRAC deployment.

    Other Definitions
    STRAC is Army slang term for “a well organized, well turned-out soldier, (pressed uniform, polished brass and shined boots).” A proud, competent trooper who can be depended on for good performance in any circumstance.

    Gear clean and tight; Weapon clean and ready; Mind clear, organized, and ready for action. S- skilled T- tough R- ready A- around the C- clock. STRAC”

  14. When I was in the U.S. Army in the 1980s, in the hallway of the company offices we had a poster of a squared-away looking soldier, and it read “STrategically Ready And Combat Tough!”

  15. LoboSolo says:

    Strac was common when I was in the Army in the 80s … Ft. Riley and the Berlin Brigade … I recall that the RAC … was Ready-Around-the Clock … I think the ST was Skill’d and Tuff.

    A fetching sidenote is that, by hap, the Old English stræc means: strict, severe, rigorous, stern, hard

    • Stan says:

      Thanks, LoboSolo. That’s interesting about Skill’d and Tuff: though deliberately misspelled, they would be pronounced just like the correct versions. A bit like journalists’ jargon with its graf, lede, etc.

  16. Jim Green says:

    When I was at Ft Campbell with the 101st (1957-58) they told us it stood for “STategic Retaliatory Airborne Commannd’.

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