English Words in War-time

War of Words: Andrew Clark and English Words in War-Time

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Language is, in a variety of ways, often seen as central to war – for good or ill. It is language which enacts the persuasions of propaganda or, as in the recruiting posters and campaigns of 1914-16, attempts to secure the call to arms. It is language which, in the popular press, must also mediate the events of war, narrating and interpreting the trajectories of conflict which ensue, and providing information to a nation at war. Language can, in such ways, be made profoundly responsive to the historical moment, detailing advance or retreat, patriotism and the partisan (and its converse), alongside the shifts of material culture and the nuances of ideological response.

Appropriately, language (and language about language) provide a recurrent topos in Clark’s first notebook, generating a set of new locutions and combinations, and exploring the ways in which words might be used to present the historical moment. That language might, on one hand, be used to misrepresent the events of war underpins, for example, a range of new combinatory forms which Clark picked out as he gathered evidence of language in use in the newspapers of the first weeks of war. Collating his reading against the then on-going first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which had, by that point, reached mid-way through S), he drew attention, for example, to new forms such as lie-factory and lie-bureau. Compounds of the early days of war, these were unrecorded in the OED. As Clark realised, they were nevertheless profoundly resonant of the ways in which – at least from the Allies’ point of view — history might be manipulated, and made open to bias and distortion. ‘It may be asked what Germany gains by her actions. The answer is that unless she had interests to serve she wold not be pouring out thousands of pounds for the upkeep of the lie-factory and the dissemination of its products. The intention is to prejudice the interests of the Allies abroad’, as the Evening News wrote, for example, on Friday 4th September 1914. Clark carefully pasted the clipping in his notebook, underlining lie-factory as headword, and noting his absence from contemporary dictionaries.

That the same concerns were shared by the enemy is equally clear from other examples which Clark gathered at this time. ‘Germany was attacked by spy fever, and many Russians were said to have been shot. Warnings were issued against the lie-factories maintained by the foreign press, and tales of barbarity by Cosacks, Belgians, and French incited the populace to fury’, the Scotsman noted on Friday 11th September, here in describing the German perspective on war. Lie-factory, as a coinage of WWI, can therefore vividly engage with the manufacture of ‘truth’ — and the antitheses that this can contain. Lie-bureau, in another word which Clark picked out, is perhaps equally effective in signalling the official production of propaganda, and the manipulative stance that this habitually encodes. ‘Latest Output of the Lie Bureau’, the Daily Express announced on 21st September 1914 (in another article which made use of lie-factory as well): ‘The Kaiser’s wireless lie-factory in the messages tapped by the Marconi Company yesterday displays not only its usual lack of truth but a cynical disregard for the intelligence of those to whom its messages are addressed’. Clark likewise drew attention to deck out, which he spotted in reading The Scotsman, here on Sept 4th 1914. As he realised, this was a phrasal verb which could be used to similar ends, changing truth into fiction in the act of presentation.

AMERICANS AND GERMAN “VICTORIES”. The New York Herald to-day contains an editorial article which accuses the German Embassy in Washington of “decking-out” wireless despatches from Berlin and making them “mighty in length and mightier in victory”’

This too was absent from the historical record of the language as it then existed. Deck out, to = to exaggerate, to give a false appearance of importance to, to expand so as to make apparently a splendid thing of: Metaphor from “dressing” a shop-window?’, as Clark wrote, venturing a definition of his own.

Coinages such as these usefully foreground the tensions of concealing and revealing in which language would repeatedly participate across the war years. “In wartime truth is so precious she must be attended to at all times by a bodyguard of lies”, as Churchill would later stress. For Clark another form of words – likewise unrecorded in the contemporary OED —was already indicative of this fact. Fog of war – ‘a phrase much in use Aug-Oct 1914′, Clark records, providing the definition ‘withholding of information as to events in the theatre of war’ alongside a despatch, published in the Daily Express. It was obliquely (and appropriately) headed ‘Near a British Headquarters in France’:

The “fog of war” that has settled over this country screens the important movements of the allied armies as effectively as a stone wall built across France from Dunkirk to Ushant. Lord Kitchener’s wise precautions, added to General Joffre’s determination that his corps commanders shall not be accompanied by war correspondents, makes it impossible for any unauthorized person to pass the barrier they have thrown between the field forces and the outside world [Daily Express 27 Aug 1914]

That language must change in order to represent the new experience of war is a subject to which writers in the popular press frequently draw attention in these early weeks. A range of other coinages and newly characteristic patterns of use would, for example, engage with images of authenticity and ‘truth’. Clark picks out word-imagery, for example, in the Evening News on the 3rd September 1914 — another combination which, as for the writer of this article, underscored the creative redeployments which words and war must bring, here in the endeavour to describe the Russian army and its advance:

We have made a word for that redoubtable mass of warriors whose outposts, day by day, ride into towns whose very names set out tongues stammering with unfamiliar syllables. For our comfort, we have come to call the armies of Russia the Steam Roller.

To our minds it was a good word. The French also – I saw the Steam Roller in French in a Paris newspaper before I ever saw the phrase in English. Especially to use Londoners the word comes easily. If we were riders of the Steppes we should have found something else. But street-wandered that we are, we look for our word-imagery in the streets, and find in the Steam Roller, rolling mighty and remorseless, crushing all in its terrible road, what reminds us of the advance of Russia’s power.

Word-pictures, used in the Daily Express (on 1st Sept 1914), was another form which drew Clark’s eye. As combinations of this kind served to emphasise, print journalism in the war years often relied primarily on words rather than pictures to evoke the events, and situations, being described. Word-pictures, for Clark, would epitomize the task to which he devoted much of the next four years – though as the accompanying quotation from the Daily Express confirms, here, too, evidence and ideology could easily unite. The ‘pictures’ which are given in the article are verbal, not visual, but they are used to reinforce a rightful sense of enmity (and retribution) in response to German actions – especially when placed against the ‘wounded’ whose words are recorded as testimony in this respect:

PICTURES FROM THE BATTLEFIELDS. GERMANS WHO FIRED ON THE RED CROSS. Many interesting word-pictures of the fighting are given by the wounded who have reached this country. The men who arrived in London yesterday amply confirmed the reports that the German troops fired on the Red Cross.

Words used, and not used, contribute to the evocation of a particular approach to war, and the construction of a particular point of view. Words about words in Clark’s first notebook would therefore already confirm the roles which language would play, and the ways in which meaning might be challenged, extended, and negotiated as the war advanced.

[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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