Origins of "Hooah" in the U.S. Military

Army Basic Training
A Soldier trainee negotiates a log obstacle on the confidence course during her 9-week basic training program at Fort Jackson, S.C. Official Army photo

"Hooah!" You can hear it echoing from the hallowed halls of Fort Benning, Ga.'s Infantry Center to the ranges at Fort Lewis, Wash. It is uttered at award ceremonies, bellowed from formations, and repeated before, during and after training missions. You can hear it shouted by Air Force Security Forces, Pararescue, and Combat Controllers. The word HOO-YAH is thundered out by Navy SEALs, Navy Divers, and Navy EOD, and by United States Marines who pronounce their motivational cheer as "OohRah!".

All are said to be derivations of each other, but it appears the term "Hooah" came first.

The Start of a Military Tradition

So, where do the terms originate? The simple answer is that nobody knows, although there are dozens of theories. In fact, nobody can even agree on the correct spelling of these widely used military "words."

No matter how one might spell the word -- with or without a hyphen, a U instead of two Os, and so on -- the word is still an expression of high morale, strength, and confidence. And, when powered by an overwhelmingly proud, and usually loud, tone of voice, "hooah / hooyah / oohrah" seems to stomp out any possibility of being bound by the written word.

"It's an affirmation that I fully agree with and support the idea or intent expressed by the person to whom I make that response," said Maj. Gen. F.A. Gorden, Military District of Washington commander. "It applies not only to the letter of what was said but to the spirit of what was said."

Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan has his interpretation. "I don't know how exactly to spell it, but I know what it means," Sullivan said. "It means we have broken the mold. We are battle focused. Hooah says -- "Look at me. I'm a warrior. I'm ready. Sergeants trained me to standard.

I serve America every day, all the way.'"

One theory is that the word originated with the Second Dragoons in Florida as "hough" in 1841. In an attempt to end the war with the Seminoles, a meeting was arranged with the Indian Chief Coacoochee. After the meeting, there was a banquet.

Garrison officers made a variety of toasts, including "Here's to luck" and "The old grudge" before drinking. Coacoochee asked Gopher John, an interpreter, the meaning of the officers' toasts. Gopher John responded, "It means, How d'ye do.'

The chief then lifted his cup above his head and exclaimed in a deep, guttural voice, "hough."

Another theory is that during the Vietnam War many American soldiers used Vietnamese and Vietnamese-French expressions interchangeably with English.

One widely used term was the Vietnamese word for "yes," which is pronounced "u-ah." When assigned a task or asked a question, soldiers would often answer with "u-ah." This term -- used for many years after the war by many soldiers, is easily changed to "hooah."

There are dozens of stories circulating about the etymology of hooah. A popular story among Army Rangers is the following account:

On D-Day, 1944, on Omaha Beach, near the sea cliffs at Point Du Hoc, General Cota, the 29th Division Assistant Division Commander, jogged down the beach toward a group of Rangers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and asked, "Where's your commanding officer?" They pointed him out and said, "Down there, sir."

General Cota reportedly followed their direction and, on his way down the beach, said, "Lead the way, Rangers!"

The Rangers from 2nd Bat reportedly said, "WHO, US?" General Cota thought he heard them say "HOOAH!" He was so impressed with their cool and calm demeanor, not to mention their cool term, hooah, he decided to make it a household name.

Nobody knows why the United States Marines pronounce the word, "OohRah!" When and where did it start? Is it related to similar cries now in use by other military services? Nobody knows for sure. Most everybody has an opinion, but there is no single theory that has been shown to be fact.

MSgt Jim Meade (USAF Retired) speculates that The Marine version of "Hooah" (OoRah) may have originated in Australia. "Many Marines were medevac down here [Australia] during the Pacific island battles of WWII and may have picked it up then.

"OoRah" is an Aussie colloquialism for Farewell or Until Then."

A couple of the more popular "opinions" on this include that "OohRah" comes from either (take your pick) a Turkish or a Russian battle cry, and was somehow adopted by U.S. Marines. Many lean in the direction that it may have originated with the 1956 film, The DI, starring Jack Webb as T/Sgt Jim Moore, who, in that movie, commands his recruit platoon, "Let me hear you ROAR, tigers!"

Some say the term "HOOAH" is another way of spelling H.U.A.-- which is an acronym for Heard, Understood, and Acknowledged.

JHI Allen adds the following information:

Variations were used by Southern troops and Northern troops during the American Civil War. For instance, the Southern song "Bonnie Blue Flag" (the blue flag with a white star that symbolized secession, and oddly, unity) has this verse -

...Hurrah, Hurrah
For Southern Rights, Hurrah
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue flag
Which bears a single star...

It was the word people used back then instead of todays "hooray". The Northern troops are documented to have yelled "Hoosah" (yes, with an 's') at several battles. I don't know if this was because of the peculiar accents many Norther troops had due to the high volume of of immigrants or maybe another cause. But I believe that a mispronunciation catching on is most likely the reason for the difference. Civil war reenactors still yell out "hoosah" in keeping with tradition during mock battles. In fact, you can see them doing it in the movie "Gettysburg".

The origins of hooah, I think, lie with the French and German professional soldiers we had training our continental army during the revolution. Most likely, in my opinion, a "hurrah" was a praise from a Hessian or French training officer. I have an ancestor who was one of those German officers. Hessians were equal to the French and British and were amongst the most professional soldiers in Europe. The king of the old German Kingdom of Hess would rent them out - and the British hired them to fight the Americans. Many defected to the colonists to gain land or a new life, or simply switched sides when caught.

At any rate, there were German and French officers and NCO's training our army. I truly believe that hooah was born during this time through those foreign military advisors. It is unique to the American military, so it was not inherited through Britain. And we certainly did not pick it up from the Arabs during the Barbary Wars (with the limited excursion that was), the Mexicans during our war with them, or the Spanish in 1898 in that blink of an eye war.

More About Military Traditions

Much of the information in this article obtained from the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps.