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What Does "Been in the Wars" Mean?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase “been in the wars” is a British idiom describing someone who has been injured. Although the statement originally referred only to soldiers who had literally been in the wars, today it is used for any person or thing that appears to have been in a struggle of any type. It can be used to describe dangerous damage or to tease people with small cuts and bruises.

Sometime during the fourteenth century, the saying “been in the wars” originated in Great Britain. The Crusades were at their height during this time, and Europeans from many nations led campaigns to the Middle East. At the time, it referred exclusively to ex-soldiers.

Military pensions for common soldiers didn’t appear until the seventeenth century, and they didn’t become common until long afterwards. Before that time, wounded soldiers were simply let go with a beggar’s permit to find their own way home. For centuries, crippled men were begging on street corners because they had “been in the war”, and they were a very familiar sight.

Over time, the idiom became less brutal. By the late twentieth century, it was most often used as a funny way to speak of slight injuries, such as a child’s scraped knee or a woman’s broken fingernail. A young boy with a black eye from a fight might be condemned or commended with the phrase.

Animals may also receive this epithet. Someone might say it about an alley cat, jokingly referring to nighttime cat fights. It could also be said about any stray cat or dog that appears to be injured and begging, just like the original ex-soldiers it was said about in the Middle Ages.

The saying can also be used to refer to inanimate objects. A favorite teddy bear with a missing eye, rips, or stains might be said to look like it has “been in the wars". An old, dented car or a misshapen couch might receive the same description.

“Been in the wars” is a primarily British saying. It is rarely, if ever, heard in former territories of Great Britain, such as India, South Africa, and Canada, but it is heard occasionally in Australia. A less common version of the idiom is “been to the wars".

In the United States, people sometimes use the phrase “purple heart” in the same way. The United States President awards the purple heart to soldiers wounded or killed in battle. When used figuratively, it refers to someone who appears to have been in a fight.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Jan 26, 2015

@SarahGen-- I agree with you. But if you ever visit Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland metropolitan areas, you are bound to come across veterans living on the streets and begging. I have many times and it's a sad, sad sight. Most of them are suffering from psychological trauma, some have more serious mental disturbances and they are unable to care for themselves. It's common for them to use alcohol and basically wander around, begging when they need to eat.

Unfortunately, things are not perfect for veterans still. I don't understand why the government can't help these people who really have been in the wars and are not even in a situation to help themselves because of the effects of war. Why can't they be placed in care homes or nursing homes so that they will at least have a place to stay and something warm to eat?

By SarahGen — On Jan 25, 2015

I can't believe that there was once a time when injured soldiers and veterans were left to beg on streets and find their way home! That's awful.

Veterans are our pride and honor and they need to be given all of the comfort and support they need after they serve. It's the least we can do for them after they have put their lives on the line to fight for us. I can't imagine veterans being treated this was and let to fend for themselves after going through so much.

By ddljohn — On Jan 25, 2015

I wouldn't really say that someone with a broken nail or a scratch on their knee has "been in the wars." This idiom is more suitable for people who have many different types of injuries in different areas of their body. Like when my little brother came home with a scraped knee, bruised arm and a cut on his forehead, he really looked like he had been in the wars. It turns out he plummeted down a hill on his bicycle and fell off along the way. If anyone else had seen him like that, they would have said the same thing about him. He really looked like he just came out of a war. Thankfully, we cleaned him up before our parents arrived, so he didn't look as bad then.

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