The origin of the word "OO-RAH" has been a subject of frustration and dispute over the years. U.S. Marines were the word's first proprietors, using it to express contentment or to set expectations. And although use-dependent, the word OO-RAH can take on a variety of meanings. Now after languishing in military jargon obscurity for decades, it has rapidly become much more commonly known as even civilians associate its use with Marines.

The spelling of the word has never been standardized, as is often the case with phonetic interpretations of a sound that can only be properly formed at the bottom of the lungs. Variant spellings include "OORAH," "OOHRAH," and "OOH-RAH." However it is spelled, it is recognizable as distinctly Marine whether spoken or written, and it can easily be distinguished from the Army version, the venerable but significantly less motivating "HOO-AH."

On one of the many training videos I had to endure as a Marine, a major in Service "C" uniform was speaking to a bunch of elementary school kids. Never one to particularly enjoy watching these videos when much more important work was waiting to be done, I was at least amused by the approach. Within a course of minutes, the major got the kids' attention and obedience in a manner reminiscent of boot camp, where upon hearing the command "EYEBALLS!" sixty recruits would lock their eyes on the drill instructor and say, in unison, "SNAP!" Amusingly, the major went on to deadpan, "Marines do not cheer. Marines do not clap. When a Marine is pleased, he says, 'Aarugha.'" From that point on, whenever he called for an affirmative response, the children would yell at the top of their lungs, "AARUGHA!" I don't even remember why I had to watch that video, but I'll always remember that major and his group of elementary school kids or as my dad would call them, "future Marines."

Of course, an astute reader would note the lack of a "G" in "OO-RAH," and I also had this thought. However, as it turns out, there appears to be some connection between the familiar battle cry of a Marine and the deep klaxon alarm of a submarine. According to several sources, including Lcpl Paul Hirseman (2004), writing for the Marine Corps website:

Marines and historians have determined the true origins of "Oorah" lie with recon Marines stationed in Korea in 1953. During this time, reconnaissance Marines in the 1st Amphibious Reconnaissance Co., found themselves traveling via submarine to where they were needed. The memorable call of "dive, dive!" would be called on the intercom and a klaxon alarm, which made a very distinct "Aarugha" sound, would announce the descent of the sub below water.
The recon Marines, who heard this sound often, started using it as a motivational tool during runs and physical training. Over time, the word "Aarugha" came to be too much of a mouthful, and eventually molded itself into the familiar "Oorah," according to Maj. Gary Marte, a retired Marine. [source]

Having grown up as a Marine brat and being given the unique opportunity to watch my two older brothers join the Corps before me, I was well acquainted with the term before I joined. I originally thought it could only mean that the person saying it was highly motivated to be a Marine, as I heard it most often after the "Star Spangled Banner" finished playing before a movie at a base theater. Since then, I have seen it used as a replacement for "Aye, Aye," as a greeting, and to announce the presence of Marines, such as when the Corps is mentioned to a mixed audience. To further demonstrate the indefatigable utility of OO-RAH, I've compiled a top 10 list of possible meanings:

  1. I am a Marine.
  2. I enthusiastically accept your message.
  3. I am excited to be here.
  4. Pleased to make your acquaintance.
  5. What you ask of me, not only will I do, I will do in a manner befitting a Marine.
  6. I expect good things from you.
  7. Good job.
  8. I am not supposed to be motivated about performing this task, but I will force myself to express excitement for the benefit of my fellow Marines and to tactfully annoy my superiors who gave me the task.
  9. I love being a Marine.
  10. I am about to destroy something.

While the above list is unofficial and not comprehensive, some of the meanings do strike a chord. According to one retired Marine, "[T]he first time my wife heard the 'OO-RAH' chant was at a base theater. Everyone stood as the national anthem was played, and one half of a nanosecond after the last note... every Marine went into a repeating OO-RAH chant. [My wife] turned to me and asked, 'Why are they all barking!'"

That brings us to number 11 on our top 10 list (Marines must exceed expectations, after all):

11. Happy birthday, Marines!

Semper Fi!