Lexical Investigations: Camouflage


Before it was a military term, camouflage was French street-slang popular among pickpockets and other shadowy figures in 1870s Paris. A combination of the Italian word camuffare (to disguise) and the French word camouflet (puff of smoke), this word described a common practice among thieves: staging an attractive woman who would blow smoke in the face of an intended target, which was both sexually suggestive at the time and distracting enough that the thief could snag the mark’s wallet.

During World War I, British troops in France found the word extremely useful. Because of the rise of airplanes, concealment of soldiers and equipment on the ground was of paramount importance. Newspapers defined camouflage for their readers, and as a result it was widely known by civilians by the end of the war. The word continued to gain traction, eventually appearing in non-military contexts, such as Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas in 1960.

While concealment usually comes to mind when people talk about camouflage, there is another type of camouflage—disruptive camouflage—that works in a completely different way. One example found in nature are the stripes found on a zebra. While zebra stripes certainly don’t work to blend each individual creature into its surroundings, when travelling in a herd, these black-and-white patterns make it extremely difficult for predators to distinguish where one tasty zebra begins and where another one ends.

The concept of disruptive camouflage was applied to protect US and British ships in the early 1900s. Naval ships were painted with bold striped patterns to make it difficult to tell which direction they were traveling to make out individual ships in a fleet. This specific type of disruptive camouflage is called Razzle Dazzle.

Popular References:

“Camouflage,” song by country music star Brad Paisley (2011)

Camouflage is a Harbinger Kid, a comic book character in the Valiant Universe.

Camouflage, German New Wave band. Billboard Hot 100 hit “The Great Commandment” in 1988. Topped the dance charts.

500 Years of New Words, Bill Sherk, 2004

A Martial medley: fact and fiction (Google eBook), by Conal O’Riordan, 1931.

Sticklers, Sideburns & Bikinis: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases. Graeme Donald. Osprey Publishing, 2008

Relevant Quotations:

“A battery in the open that is not protected in any way by camouflage is bound to be shelled very heavily.”

—Army War College (U.S.), Camouflage for the Troops of the Line (1920)

“Blending wood tones camouflage size.”

Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas (1960)

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the word echelon.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


  1. ankitadheeman -  January 16, 2015 - 3:01 am

    useful information!! creative mind!!!

  2. Johnd88 -  September 22, 2014 - 7:05 pm

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  3. zippo -  June 17, 2013 - 11:49 pm

    everything comes and the world is actually a lot of interesting stories that happened. thank you for helping me understand the author adds a new thing.

  4. tu bep -  June 17, 2013 - 11:46 pm

    which is the best combination I’ve ever known. Also I understand that Picasso was consulted on the design of camouflage for military use.

  5. commander sac longchamp -  May 23, 2013 - 7:54 pm

    Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!

  6. Jonathan Landon -  May 14, 2013 - 10:00 pm

    Actually, studies show that zebra stripes DO have concealment functions.

    By breaking up the outline of the animal, the zebra becomes harder for biting/bloodsucking flies to find. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16944753

  7. Andrew -  May 14, 2013 - 12:51 pm

    Ships camouflaged with razzle are very bizarre and fascinating. It is very counter-intuitive, but that is what made the cognitive concealment trick work. It was apparently very successful and used until radar made it obsolete. Another interesting aspect of early camouflage was that the French army which pioneered its use actually hired Cubist artists to make the designs.

  8. conspiritech -  May 14, 2013 - 9:07 am

    Intelligence of the looser variety. ( guess ) i concur with this statement. The puff of smoke bit you will have to learn from a thief. It is non-public knowledge.

  9. Mike -  May 14, 2013 - 8:07 am


    What frog?

  10. a.gopalakrishnan -  May 14, 2013 - 7:26 am

    nice informatiion learn more thankingyou

  11. DMY! -  May 14, 2013 - 12:04 am

    my real time is 05:04 PM

  12. DMY! -  May 14, 2013 - 12:02 am

    Cool zebra joke!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. All @ One Page -  May 13, 2013 - 11:14 pm

    I’ve never found this much detail about this tricky word. You’ve done a great job to provide us such a nice piece of info. Bravo………
    Ark Spend

  14. Faezeh -  May 13, 2013 - 3:56 pm

    Dear nuff
    Hi, i read your command, instead of going to your bed or another person saying zebra joke, a bit feed your mind. leave your bod om and forget about tattoo or ring in your ear, earth is now traveling and we are going to enter new dimension. Use your mother language and read whatever is necessay in these days. Get to know what is going on. They are here, just beside your bed. Did you know that you are sharing your energy soul with them for free. I said for free. Can you wake up stupid young. These days are special. Do not think about inside your pans, think about beautiful children who every day they consomme. These children are your brother or your sister. Why still you are at asleep. wake up and see what reptilian are doing with your pans every night. If not what is difference between you and animal, then wake up, wake up wake up please. read about you enemy not your girlfriend who gives you pleasure. wake up stupid young. Time for sleeping is over wake up

  15. alexis chavez -  May 13, 2013 - 10:48 am

    dictionary .com is best to do homework.

  16. tish -  May 13, 2013 - 10:28 am


  17. Brian Armour -  May 11, 2013 - 10:49 pm

    Very interesting history of the word. Also I understand that Picasso was consulted on the design of camouflage for military use.

  18. taylor -  May 11, 2013 - 7:50 am

    ohh deer

  19. bleudogman -  May 10, 2013 - 8:20 pm

    I found (and bought and used) plastic Camouflage Easter Eggs this year and can’t wait for next year to look for more. Not everyone got it right away but we do HIDE our Easter Eggs.

  20. April -  May 10, 2013 - 1:28 pm

    Interesting article. One I WILL remember.

  21. JJRousseau -  May 10, 2013 - 8:37 am

    I’m a real dog in Standard Clothing. Concealing nothing. Woof.

  22. mckenna -  May 10, 2013 - 5:35 am

    “Someone” asked why the frog looks so weird. I’d hazard a guess that it’s hiding among the duck weed–trying to look like a duck? I don’t think so. Trying to look like something that won’t zap out a long tongue and eat you for breakfast if you’re small enough? Splurp!!!

  23. the truth -  May 10, 2013 - 3:39 am

    That’s what I love about this website. I’ve used this website for years and never clicked that little information buttons on the sides. Then, one day, a quick accidental slip of the finger makes me look at these all the time.

    PS. I agree with “someone,” why is the frog so weird?

  24. nalini -  May 9, 2013 - 11:21 pm

    razlle dazlle new and fascinating

  25. kiapita -  May 9, 2013 - 12:01 pm

    I made the mistake of painting my truck camouflage. Now I can’t find it.

  26. Bob -  May 9, 2013 - 9:32 am

    HI funny zebra joke!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  27. Sue Zanker -  May 9, 2013 - 5:07 am

    God, I am continually dismayed at the spelling of younger people……….
    ‘Nuff’ said, I am going to bed……!!!

  28. littlemissgreen -  May 9, 2013 - 3:12 am

    That IS fascinating. It is amazing how something can be carried from one generation into the next, almost like a hand me down changing with time little by little. (I’ll never think of “Smoke gets in your eyes” the same!)

  29. someone -  May 8, 2013 - 5:06 pm

    why does the frog look so weird?

  30. dark shadows -  May 8, 2013 - 12:11 pm

    if you want a camouflage expert consult a ninja. if you live to ask. HA.
    (note:my email dosn’t work)

  31. Claire -  May 8, 2013 - 11:35 am

    Hhahaha funnyyyy

  32. Novelist -  May 8, 2013 - 9:59 am

    The origin of words, and the fluctuation of meanings as they become part of popular vernacular, is a fascinating subject. Thank you for the information.

  33. The Uncommon Common Man -  May 8, 2013 - 9:19 am

    What an interesting piece, I had no idea this word held this odd of value and rose from such a specific occasion.

  34. nico -  May 8, 2013 - 7:38 am

    the puff of smoke technique sounds cool

  35. CAMOUFLAGE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  May 8, 2013 - 4:59 am

    [...] Lost in decoupage. — We the People self-abusing — The Truth herein is self-evident ‘Camouflage’.–>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, [...]

  36. Gene -  May 7, 2013 - 4:25 pm

    I LOVE the color camoflage. My house is covered in camoflage wall paper, plants, furnature etc.

  37. D -  May 7, 2013 - 5:50 am


  38. Hunter -  May 7, 2013 - 5:12 am

    I have never heard of razzle dazzle, nor why zebras have those stripes but that’s really interesting!

  39. sisay dejene -  May 7, 2013 - 4:43 am

    I have already downloaded this dictionary. Which application software is compatible with this dictionary so that I can use it on my pc ?

  40. Cyberquill -  May 7, 2013 - 3:58 am

    There’s a third type of camouflage known as “combined camouflage,” as it simultaneously conceals and disrupts. It occurs, for example, when a herd of zebras crosses the street on a crosswalk.


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