English Words in War-time

Allies and Enemies: taking sides in the language of war

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Reading the Scotsman in February 1914, Clark had noted with interest the appearance of a lengthy set of articles on names and naming by Herbert Maxwell. He excised its variant components carefully, and pasted them into his early notebooks on language, providing annotations where necessary. Language, as the article had stressed, could readily reveal the patterning of power and control, as in the impact of the ‘feudal language of ownership’ following the Norman Conquest, and the legacies that English surnames continue to reveal. Names, Maxwell had stressed, eloquently conveyed their own history – whether this reflected the features of the local landscape, or the patterns of invasion and occupation that history likewise confirmed.

That contemporary history would swiftly reveal a similar play of language and power would perhaps have surprised Maxwell. Speaking the same language – or its converse – would, in these terms, be rendered a particularly effective metaphor, with some strikingly practical consequences. French, as we will see, could in these terms become a familiar – and often unglossed –component of newspaper despatches. Readers of the Daily Express would, in the early days of war, hence encounter a range of locutions unrecorded in the OED as it then existed (‘there is room enough to spare in all the cafes at this hour of the aperitif, where only a few of the old customers sit around and study the ‘temps’’, as Clark noted, pasting in his notebook an extract from an article set in the cafes of Paris in late August 1914;  similar are his notes on laissez-passer and guichet as other aspects of local colour and newly assumed fluency for readers of the English press (‘In the morning I was warned by the landlord that I would not get out of Rouen without a laissez-passer’ (5 Sept 1914, Daily Express), ‘I demanded my ticket at the guichet’ (ibid). French signals solidarity, togetherness, and alliance.

Elsewhere, language – and languages – could be used to emblematize the political divides of war in very different ways. ‘To use English words is the greatest crime’, as the Scotsman reported in an article on Germany on 7th Sept  1914, picking out specific examples of both silencing and rejection:  ‘the Hamburg people no longer play bridge, but Brücke’, it noted. Clark noted down both the word, and its significance (1/81). ‘Bridge’ was verboten. Place-names likewise attract a flurry of interest, prompting both resistance and counter-attack in linguistic terms. Here, being German-named gained newly negative connotations as the Daily Express confirmed, here in another compound which, for Clark, usefully revealed the play of words in time:

The change in the name of the capital has been received with popular enthusiasm, and other German-named towns, such as Schluesselburg, ask for the transformation of their names [Daily Express, September 3rd 1914]

Language, as Clark notes, was here used ‘to intimate [the] repudiation of German influence’. The shift of St Peterburg to Petrograd is, in this respect, extensively documented in the early weeks of war. ‘The substitution of the Slavonic “grad” for the Germanic “burg” in the termination of the “Petersburg” is an interesting and significant effect of the war’, as an article in the Scotsman declared 2 Sept 1914:  ‘The change in the name of the capital has been received with popular enthusiasm, the German terminology of the late name having become an anomaly in existing circumstances’. This was reported in the Daily Express under the heading Germanism (DE Wed 2 Sept), providing, for Clark still further evidence of the divisions – and changes – language would enact.  Even if, as the article records, ‘This is, perhaps, one of the trivialities of war’, it was nevertheless also able to be depicted as ‘significant proof of the deep hatred of Prussian militarism which extends from one end of Europe to another’. For Clark, the article gave another locution – rechristen — which also seemed to signal the changes taking place, and the strategic patterns which language could reveal.

In Berlin they have Teutonised the names of the Hotel Westminster and the Hotel Bristol. The Russians have been more magnificent. Their capital, Petersburg, has a German name. It is now patriotically re-christened Petrograd.

Petrograd became the newly accepted norm, and by September 6th, Clark is documenting its extension to adjective as well as noun. ‘’the military critics in the Petrograd press infer that the next few days will bring news of a very important character’ as the Scotsman recorded on 8 Sept 1914.

Even if not entirely convinced by their currency, or the facts of actual use, he tracked a range of other similar neologisms. ‘Brusselsburg: a silly invention to describe Brussels as having passed under German rule’, he noted, against another clipping in his first notebook, headed ‘Brusselsburg. Life under the new William the Conqueror’. The ‘suggestion of the word’, as Clark explains, drew on the analogy of Petrograd.  Such forms were evanescent, and would certainly never make their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (which maintained, in any case, a policy of avoiding proper nouns). They were, however, also profoundly evocative of the historical moment; as Clark’s notebooks confirm, history and ideology, and new acts of feudal dominance, clearly prompted coinages of this kind.

[Citations from the Clark archive, and vol.1 of ‘English Words in War-Time’ provided courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]

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