Platoon: tracking lexical life beyond the Oxford English Dictionary

 ‘Whole platoons rushed to the rescue and emptied their magazines into them, and not a few were bayonetted’ ‘”Bravo !’, shouted my platoon commander as he watched the carnage through his field glasses’ Daily Express, 1914 1 Sept

Platoon was one of a number of words where, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, evidence and meaning already seemed to have moved beyond that which the Oxford English Dictionary supplied. Clark’s ‘Not in N.E.D.’ ** appears like a refrain through his early notebooks, set against words such as flag-wagging, an idiomatic locution which he found  in the Daily Express in August 1914. It meant,  Clark explained, ‘boasting of military and naval power of one’s country’, and was a word which was already seen as redolent of an excess of patriotic zeal. Terrace offered other problems. Declared obsolete in the OED, it seemed alive and well in the popular press.  Clark found it, for example,  in reading the pages of the Evening News on  8th September 1914,here in an article  describing French refugees in Britain:  ‘the refugees paces up and down, sat on the chairs and the deck seats, read French papers. The lawns were like the terrace of a fashionable French watering place in the height of the season’.  If terrace had been obsolete for the OED, it was perhaps re-introduced as a loanword, Clark hypothesised.

Platoon was similar. *‘N.E.D. says “obs”, but much in use in 1915’, Clark notes against the quotation from the Daily Express which appears at the top of this post.  OED entries typically offered a model of life-history or biography for each word. Platoon, the dictionary confirmed, had in this light begun to be used in English in the military senses in 1637, signifying A small body of foot-soldiers, detached from a larger body and operating as an organized unit’; it could also mean half a company, a squad, a tactical formation preserved in some armies for purposes of drill, etc.’.  Yet, while the life-history of platoon could, at least in other senses, be tracked in terms of its later use, its role in military diction was deemed to have come to an end in the mid-19th century. ‘it is Obsolete in the British army’, James Murray stated in his entry for the word, drawing on the apparently definitive information given by Stocqueler in his Military Encyclopaedia  of 1853. This was reproduced in the dictionary entry: ‘Platoon, a subdivision or small body of infantry. The word is obsolete, except in the term ‘manual and platoon exercise’’. Later evidence which Murray included in OED1 was, accordingly, both historical and linked to American rather than British use.

Written in 1907, platoon had  in fact formed a relatively recent entry within the still-evolving OED. Clark, just seven  years later, would, however, start  to document a very different history.  Platoon, as the evidence he assembled in his notebook lexicon proved,  had not died but instead, as the popular press attested,  it was indeed  ‘much in use’.  It was moreover used as noun and as adjective, as Clark’s evidence on platoon commander from the Daily Express in September 1914 had also indicated. Rendered alive in the evidence he had before him, yet dead in a national dictionary written on historical principles, the word, and its apparent anomalies, would clearly remain on Clark’s mind.

The OED, as in many other instances which Clark would go on to document during the war years, would in this respect by no means get the last word. One day in 1915 Clark found himself in conversation in Great Leighs with Major Joseph Caldwell, who had served with the London Scottish. Clark took the opportunity to elicit additional information on platoon  As Clark therefore records in a postscript which appears at the end of his first notebook, his quest was successful — enabling  him to fill in at least some of the gaps in the ‘biography’ of platoon. As Major Caldwell confirmed, as far as he could remember it had ‘dropped out of use about the end of Wellington’s campaigns’, but ‘reintroduced in the official orders for drill in 1914’.

In the later 1920s Clark’s material was passed to the OED. While little use was made of it as a whole, platoon was one of the criticisms the dictionary took on board as it prepared a corrected Supplement  for the first edition (which had finally been completed in 1928).  In the 1933 Supplement for the OED, the entry is revised. Platoon is no longer obsolete but, as we are now told,  it was in fact ‘recently revived in the British Army for a unit of infantry forming a fourth part of company and subdivided into four sections of about eight men each’.  Clark, Caldwell, — and the evidence of the Daily Express which prompted Clark’s observations — together with the later editors of the 1933 Supplement who read Clark’s work after his death, would in such ways all combine to produce a corrected version which remains the basis of the modern entry, and platoon’s on-going history as part of military diction. As the Supplement confirmed, Caldwell’s intuition about the change had indeed proved  correct, though the dictionary also managed to find an earlier  citation which located the shift in 1913 (1913   Army Order 323 16 Sept. §4   A company will be divided into four platoons, each commanded by a subaltern…Each platoon will be sub-divided under regulations to be issued later’). Stocqueler’s evidence has in the meantime disappeared as the entry was recently revised in full,  in June 2006, for OED Online (the on-going third edition of the OED).

Those interested in the language of the First World War –and the period in which platoon, as Clark confirms, rose to prominence in early twentieth-century use — might nevertheless find it surprising that the revised evidence in the OED moves from 1913 (and the quotation which is given above), to another  quotation from 1945

H. P. Samwell Infantry Officer with Eighth Army iv. 33   We had agreed that he should bring up Company H.Q. and the reserve platoon behind, while I led the forward platoons

The diction of the war years themselves is silenced, along with the popular sources Clark documents. Likewise, for platoon commander, it is the canonical Wilfrid Owen who is used as the basis of the OED evidence for this period

1917, W. Owen Let. 23 Nov. (1967) 509   Interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s

rather than Clark’s citation form the Daily Express some three years earlier. Clark’s evidence remains in the notebooks, along with his careful tracking of language on the move as witnessed in the reportage of the popular press.

[“platoon, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 4 August 2014].

** NED = New English Dictionary, the original title used for the OED in its 1st edition (1884-1928).

 

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