For many of us, life in the military contains such a variety of military-specific terms and acronyms that they become part of everyday life and we don’t give a second thought to the where they originated. The Mess and Wardroom are such terms. Where did they originate and how did they come into being?
The term Mess first appeared in English as meaning a portion of food. This came from the old French “mes” meaning “a dish” This ultimately comes from the Latin “missus” or “missum” meaning “to put on or send to a table” but could also mean “a course at a meal” In the fifteenth century Mess came to refer to a group of people (usually 4 in number) who sat together at a meal and were served from the same dishes. This soon evolved into a name of any military group who ate together.
There is another less well known but none the less “interesting” interpretation of the term Mess. In this explanation, Mess is an acronym for Maintenance of Equal Social Status. It is supposedly attributed to the famous Indian military commander Field Marshall Cariappa who felt that excessive rank consciousness among officers at social functions would impact camaraderie and cohesion. His view which aligns roughly with what we know today is that within the mess all officers have the same social status irrespective of the rank and position they hold outside of the Mess. Given that Field Marshall Cariappa’s served in the early 20th century it is likely that his interpretation of the role and meaning of the mess was a personal ideal.
In the Navy however, the term Officers’ Mess is replaced by Wardroom. In the 18th century, the Royal Navy had a large compartment on warships called the “Wardrobe” which was often located under the Captain’s Great Cabin and was used for storing prizes of war, booty and valuables plundered from foreign ships at sea. This wardrobe was also typically located near the officers’ quarters. Their cabins normally opened onto this space. When the wardrobe was empty, especially during the outward voyage, the officers began using the wardrobe compartment for dining and lounging, to have their meals and to congregate and pass time together. They also used it to hang their spare uniforms due to the cramped nature of their own cabins. As the days of plundering ended, the wardrobe was used exclusively by officers as a lounge and for eating meals. Gradually the Wardrobe became the Officers’ mess and lounge and having been elevated from a closet to a room became the Wardroom.