The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you bugged by bivvies?

Q: L.L. Bean sells something called a “bug bivy,” a mini-tent made of mosquito netting for keeping out insects. No dictionary I have access to has an entry for “bivy,” and not even the Bean people could give me a definition. Have you ever heard of it? I went on an etymological flight of fancy and decided that it’s a diminutive of “bivouac.”

A: Your instincts are right on track.

“Bivy,” more commonly spelled “bivvy,” originated during World War I as army slang, short for the older “bivouac.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “bivvy” as “a temporary shelter for troops; a small tent.”

The OED’s first citation for its use in print is from The Anzac Book (1916), which was written and illustrated in Gallipoli by the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps: “We lays down in the open / W’en our ‘bivvies’ isn’t dug.”

Here are a few more OED citations.

1918: “We arrived at our allotted spot, somewhere in Palestine, and erected our bivvies” (from the Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F., a journal published for soldiers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force).

1920: “The Egyptian Camel Corps and Gurkhas arrived, bringing ‘Bivies’ and other luxuries” (from Blackwood’s Magazine).

1925: “That word was ‘tambu’, meaning a rough and ready shelter made of branches, planks, corrugated iron, a ‘bivvy’, in fact” (from the Glasgow Herald).

But L.L. Bean isn’t using a military term. As it happens, “bivvy” later acquired a more peaceful meaning as a slang word among mountaineers, climbers, and backpackers.

This sporting sense of the word was first recorded as a verb in 1943 and as a noun in 1961, according to citations in the OED.

As a verb, the dictionary says, to “bivvy” is “to spend the night in the open air without a tent (esp. in a bivvy bag); to camp with little or no shelter.”

The verb also appears with prepositions, so a camper can “bivvy down,” “bivvy out,” or “bivvy up.”

As for the noun, the OED says a “bivvy” is “a night spent in the open air without a tent” or “an open air encampment.”

In mountaineering slang, a “bivvy sack” (1977) or “bivvy bag” (1982) refers to a waterproof sleeping bag used outdoors instead of a tent, according to the OED.

And in L.L. Bean slang, a “bug bivy” is a lightweight, waterproof, and bug-proof shelter for “the minimalist outdoor adventurer.” 

The original “bivouac” has had many similar meanings over the years.

The noun was first recorded in 1706, when it meant a “night-watch by a whole army under arms, to prevent surprise,” Oxford explains.

In today’s military usage, the dictionary says, it means “a temporary encampment of troops in the field” without tents.

The nonmilitary meaning of “bivouac,” which came along in the mid-19th century, is simply “an encampment for the night in the open air” or “a camping out.”

The verb “bivouac” was first recorded in 1800, when it meant to remain, especially overnight, in the open air with no shelter.

As for its etymology, the word comes from the French bivouac and bivac, terms that the OED says are “generally said to have been introduced during the Thirty Years’ War” (1618-48).

But ultimately “bivouac” probably comes from beiwacht, an old term in Swiss German dialect. It was used in the cantons of Aargau and Zürich in the Old Swiss Confederacy to mean a nighttime citizens’ patrol for keeping order.

As the OED says, “This remaining of a large body of men under arms all night explains the original sense of bivouac.”

Check out our books about the English language