Why Are They Called 'Mess Halls' & 'Mess Kits' in the Military?

Messing Around with Terminology

When referencing food and the military, I am frequently asked the same questions by students. “Why does the military give out mess kits?”, and “Why is the place where soldiers eat called a mess hall?” I am a person who needs answers that add up. Inquisitive kids are that way too. 
When I first started looking around for an answer back in the early 1990s, I found a few bits and pieces of information available, but not one source I read actually tied it all together to where it made sense to me. 

From the outset “mess” obviously meant “food” and nothing more. The biblical Essau had a “mess of potage” which is believed to be a portion of lentil soup or beans. While growing up my brothers had G I Joe action figures that came with “mess kits” and watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” on television I heard the term “mess a’vittles” frequently used. While listening to former Presidential aide Dee Dee Meyers talking on late night t.v. she referred to her “mess bill” for something she had eaten on Air Force One. It was starting to drive me a bit nuts. If “mess” historically had meant food, how, why and when did it become the definitive term for a state of confusion and disorderliness? 

It took me much sleuthing, but I finally found a very old book on word origins and voila… 
there was an answer that made sense. The change in the general public’s definition of the word apparently was in the 1590s, when a party game called “Muss” spread across Europe. Muss was a game in which trinkets were tossed around a room and the party guests would scramble to retrieve them (anyone for some 52 pickup?)   As popularity of the game spread throughout Europe, with its various languages, the name of the game somehow was changed to “Mess”.   The Bible, military handbooks, and all other writings had naturally been left with the original meaning of the word intact. But from that point on, “muss” has rarely been used as a common term for something in a state of disarray, other than regionally in a few parts of the world. 

Many southern states here in the U.S. are one such regional area.   The term muss is still used in the south, while I rarely hear it here in Southern California.  The eyes of an octogenarian attending one of my seminars became misty as he recounted how his grandmother in Alabama would scold him for wearing his hat in her home. “I would say that my hair was a mess underneath my hat. She would then correct me by saying, ‘Your hair is mussed. It is not a mess!” 

Now I always try to remember that my daughter’s room is not a mess.  Her room is simply mussed up. It sounds better and somehow makes me feel a bit better about it.

This was originally posted in 2010

© Maura J. Graber 2010/The R.S.V.P. Institute of Etiquette


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