Q: I’ve been out of the country for a while (in beautiful Cape Town), so I’m catching up on the blog. The “on premises” entry made me think of the US military use of “in country.” Where did this come from? Is it a Britishism? A militarism?
A: You asked about “in country,” an expression for being in Vietnam during US military operations in the 1960s and ’70s. But a civilian sense was in use in Scotland as far back as the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In its earlier Scottish incarnation, the expression meant “the inland country, the interior; the mainland as opposed to the outlying isles; the country within reach of the capital and centre of civilization, as distinguished from outlying districts,” the OED says.
The dictionary has citations for “the In-cuntre” (1565), “the Inne cuntrey” (1596), and this one from Archbishop Spottiswood’s The History of the Church of Scotland (1639): “In the Isles and High-lands were likewise great Troubles: nor was In-country more quiet.”
This construction sounds a little odd to us now, but in earlier days people used many such “in” compounds to describe something near the center: “in-parish,” “in-shore,” the now familiar “inland,” and “in-field” (which was originally a reference to farmland around or near a homestead, not to a baseball infield).
The OED says “in country” (spelled various ways) was first used to mean “in the country” or “in a contextually specified country” in the 20th century.
The earliest such citation is from a collection of stories and writings by Dylan Thomas, A Prospect of the Sea (1953): “Between the incountry fields and the incoming sea.”
The military sense of the phrase first appeared in the New York Times in May 1966: “In South Vietnam, in what is called in Saigon the ‘in-country’ war, development efforts have been concentrated upon types of weapons best utilized in jungles and rice paddies.”
The next OED citation is from the Daily Telegraph in 1969: “This will reduce America’s ‘in-country’ military strength to 484,000 troops.”
The quotation marks soon fell off, as in this line from the Daily Telegraph in 1973: “American in-country troop strength [in Vietnam] stands at 7,170 men.”
Thus the expression “in country” became associated with military service in Vietnam (it was also the title of a popular novel about the war and its aftermath by Bobbie Ann Mason). By extension, it has become a common phrase in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.