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What does It Mean to be AWOL?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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AWOL, pronounced A-wall, is an acronym for "absent without leave," or to refer to one who is absent without leave. Sometimes people mistranslate AWOL as away without leave. The term originated, by most accounts, during the American Civil War. Many soldiers from both sides were AWOL because of disastrous situations requiring their help at home. Early pronunciation of the term was A-W-O-L, with each letter being pronounced. Like many acronyms of military origin, it has been shortened to be said like a word.

Margaret Mitchell, in her famous novel, Gone With the Wind asserts that many confederate soldiers went AWOL because of drastic shortages in food. Particularly as confederate money decreased in value and blockade-runners had more difficulty getting supplies through, people who farmed for a living were faced with the prospect of starvation without the help of a soldier returning home to plant, tend and harvest crops. Mitchell states that many commanders in the confederate forces overlooked these AWOL absences.

However, there is evidence that AWOL absences were certainly not always overlooked. A person who deserted from the army, or who returned late could be court-martialed and imprisoned or executed. On the other hand, shortage of troops might mean a soldier who went AWOL and returned possibly was welcomed back. It would have been poor military strategy to execute an able-bodied man.

The Union army had a better chance of avoiding military sanctions by remaining AWOL. Many soldiers who went AWOL simply left for the west where it was easier to avoid being prosecuted for deserting. More likely, court-martial and execution awaited those who were captured since a greater supply of manpower for the Northern front existed.

Since the Civil War, the term AWOL has applied to any soldier in the armed forces who is absent without leave. Failure to report after a leave can also result in an AWOL status. Though punishment tends to be less severe for a minor AWOL infraction, like showing up a few hours late, deserting may still be met with more severe punishment, including imprisonment. Execution is, however, rare and unlikely to occur for someone who deserts. Most often, deserters are given prison sentences and are dishonorably discharged from the military.

People may use the term AWOL when referring to being absent from the workplace or school without a reasonable excuse. For example a teen who cuts school might say, “Yeah, I’m AWOL today," and pay the price the next day. People, who go AWOL from work, tend to get fired, unless there was a good reason why the person could not notify his or her employer of the absence in advance.

Some also use the term more loosely when taking a sick day when they’re not really sick. They may consider themselves AWOL because their leave was granted on a false premise. Essentially they lied about being ill in order to have a day off.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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