‘short-arm inspection’: meaning and origin

Originally and chiefly military, the slang phrase short-arm inspection designates an inspection of the penis for venereal disease or other infection.

The image is of the penis as an additional, but shorter, limb.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase short-arm inspection recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, March 2022) is from Wine, Women and War: A Diary of Disillusionment (New York: J. H. Sears & Company, Inc., 1926), the war journal of the U.S. novelist and journalist Howard Vincent O’Brien (1888-1947), published anonymously and edited by Karl Edwin Harriman:

January, 1919
Mon., 13th.—Fairly rough sea. Bunkies laid out—much worse sick than well. Found good company with officers —th Div. Slow passage of time. Boat drill—silly farce.
Maj. H——, flier, charming fellow. Planning flight across Atlantic, but admits feet getting cold. On duty at 12. My post close to popular G.I. can—“1, for the use of.” Short arm inspection between vomits. Doctor sicker than patients. Droll but pathetic. Hard, having to chase poor devils on deck.

Incidentally, the Oxford English Dictionary omits to mention that the phrase was defined as follows in the Glossary appended to Wine, Women and War: A Diary of Disillusionment:

short arm inspection, examination for venereal disease.

I have, however, found earlier occurrences of the phrase short-arm inspection—they are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA) of Sunday 16th September 1917:

Camp Hancock, Ga., Sept. 15.—[…] Twelve men were discharged from the First Field artillery because of physical disability. The defects were discovered in the recent examinations for nervous and mental diseases. A “short arm” inspection conducted by Major D. E. Sable in command of the sanitary detachment of the regiment failed to find a single case of threatened sickness today. More than 200 men of the First Field artillery were entertained last evening by Mrs. H. H. Claussen, of Augusta.
The enlisted strength of the division was reported today as 26,696. Lieut. Col. William J. Crookston, division surgeon, reported that the good health conditions in the organization were remarkable. The number of cases of sickness, he said, was small.

2-: From The Pink Rag (Topeka, Kansas, USA) of Friday 5th October 1917:

Do you know what the “Short-Arm Inspection” in the army is?
It will be a liberal education to find out and besides that you may profit by it.

3-: From a letter that one Everett G. Butler wrote from Camp Funston, Kansas, on Sunday 2nd December 1917, published in The Miller Press (Miller, South Dakota, USA) of Thursday 6th December 1917:

Some of the fellows have gone to town this afternoon, so there is not much doing. We had two inspections last week. Our regular inspection comes Saturday. The short arm inspection is great fun. They ought to take our pictures when we are ready for it. They would be good for “Snappy Stories,” but I do not think they would look very good in your family journal.

4-: From the Cloverdale Reveille (Cloverdale, California, USA) of Friday 21st December 1917:

DOING ‘K. P.’ AT CAMP LEWIS
Stanley Howe Writes of Life Among the Soldier Boys.
Given “Hoof” and “Short Arm” Inspection He Is Pronounced O. K. Drill From 7 in Morning to 4:30 in Afternoon.

Stanley Howe, a young colored man known to nearly everyone in northern Sonoma, having resided the major portion of his life in Cloverdale, has written a letter from Camp Lewis to his friend, Quim Seawell, of Healdsburg. In his letter he says:
“[…] The guards around the reservoir shot and killed two fellows they found putting arsenic in the water. Happened last week. Believe me, this place is pretty well guarded. No chance to get in at all without a guard seeing you, and you must give your reason for being there or to the guard house you go. Had hoof and short arm inspection yesterday; passed O. K.”

The shortened form short-arm occurs, for example, in On Being Inducted—I, “the first of two articles in which Mr. Price Day describes in simple terms the business of being inducted into the Army”, published in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland, USA) of Monday 5th January 1953:

At the Gay street station you are taken to the second floor for a brief physical check, the army “short-arm,” given in this case to see if anything has turned up since your preinduction physical.

The phrase to give [a man] the short arm occurs in a non-military context in Fools Die (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1978), by the U.S. novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo (1920-1999):

‘There is a female gel, Proganasy, that’s used as a contraceptive and they found that it destroys VD bacteria as well, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Come to think of it, my friend Osano uses those penicillin pills whenever he thinks he’s going to get lucky with a girl.’
Janelle laughed scornfully. ‘That’s all right for men. You men will fuck anything, but women never know who or when they are going to fuck until an hour or two hours beforehand.’
‘Well,’ I said very cheerfully, ‘let me give you some advice. Never fuck anybody between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. They have about ten times more VD than any other age bracket. Another thing is before you go to bed with a guy, give him a short arm.’
Janelle said, ‘That sounds disgusting. What is that?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you strip down his penis, you know, like you’re masturbating him, and if there’s a yellow fluid coming out like a drippage, you know he’s infected. That’s what prostitutes do.’