A Non-Starter for Peace

A Non-Starter for Peace

A non-starter in modern use is, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, a thing or person which doesn’t start in a race or other kind of competition or test. It is a form which was taken originally from horse-racing, as in the very first use of this word in 1865 which the modern OED attests. If the other horses start, a non-starter is left far behind, never having left the point at which the race begins. This was, as history proves, a sense which was easily extended to a range of other domains. Nevertheless, the first edition of the OED, in progress as the First World War began, had been entirely silent on this word and its use. The relevant section, which covered words in Niche to Nywe, had been published in September 1907. While it provided an extensive section on words with non-, non-starter did not appear.

For Clark, tracking words in wartime, the use of non-starter in the Star on 5th September 1914 was therefore doubly arresting – first for the appearance of what seemed an unrecorded form, but secondly for the quite literally eye-catching statement in which it was deployed:

“A non-starter – The Kaiser, who was nominated only two months ago as the next recipient of the Nobel peace prize”.

This was, by early September 1914, a non-starter indeed. Kaiserism had by that point firmly come to suggest war not peace, being widely used alongside militarism and the politics of aggression. The Scotsman on September 3rd provides a good example; here on-going conflict is seen, from the Allies’ side, as a united effort in “fighting Kaiserism or militarism”. Still more prominent were images of the Kaiser as a ‘modern Attila and his army’, here in the Scotsman on Tuesday 8th September 1914. Similar was reference to the ‘New Attila’ in the Scotsman on 17th September 1914. This linked modern history to another unlikely contender for a peace prize. As the article stated:

‘Fourteen hundred years ago Attila and his Huns desolated Belgium, Holland, and Gaul, and then crossed the Alps to Northern Italy’.

As it added, the historical continuities seemed plain:

’now another Attila, at the head of a horde of barbarian Huns, and he and they are following in the footsteps of their ancient predecessors, burning classic cities and peaceful villages, and murdering indiscriminately men, women, and children, trampling the latter ruthlessly under their horses’ hoofs’.

The language was that of outrage and atrocity, and wilful depredation.

In terms of the history of non-starter and its representation, Clark’s evidence would, in this instance, be read by the OED in the scrutiny given to his notebooks around 1930. It was, however, rejected; n the 1933 Supplement to the OED, nouns such as non-flam (‘That is not inflammable’) are clearly inserted in preference. While a short entry does appear in the second edition of the OED in 1989, this contained no evidence in British English before1932, and even this referred to the more literal sense of the term — rather than the metaphorical one Clark had spotted.

Even in 2003, in a draft revision of the third edition of the Dictionary, the first metaphorical use of non-starter was traced only to 1934. Yet, rather than being a post-war locution, its use had, of course, been there all along in Clark’s carefully assembled lexicon of war-time English. Only in December 2009– and almost a century after Clark first recorded the form,– did Clark’s evidence, and the pithy citation on peace and the Kaiser in the context of war, finally make its way into the OED where it now appears in prominent first position under non-starter in the sense:  ‘A person or thing that is unlikely to succeed or be effective, or that is to be rejected or discounted at the outset; an impracticable idea’.

If the Kaiser hence proved a resounding non-starter for peace, the Star’s observation proved, at least in terms of language, a point of significant change, while also confirming Clark’s good eye for language on the move.

** See “non-starter”, OED Online.Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 20 September 2014.


So what is this thing called “war”?

War, with some irony, did not yet exist in the Oxford English Dictionary as Clark began his project of collecting up the vocabulary of what we now know as the First World War. The relevant section of the Dictionary would not be published until 1921. Our modern terminology depends, of course, firmly on hindsight. A first world war, as we now know, was followed by a second. The numerical sequencing offers ominous potential for a third or fourth which, as yet, remain unrealised.

Here, too, both language and history in 1914 could offer the potential for other modes of expression to come to the fore.  How exactly this war was seen and discussed in its first few weeks – when its duration and scale were as yet unknown — can therefore be especially interesting.  The Daily Express on Friday 11th Sept was, for example, already contemplating the coming “war winter:  ’Everybody is preparing for a “war winter”’, it stated, in ways which also suggest some problems for the popular mythography by which WWI was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’. German plans for a quick defeat of France had failed. The conflict seemed likely to set in. “War winter”, set apart by its framing scare quotes, is clearly a form which both Clark and the Daily Express regarded as new and distinctive, andparticularly evocative of time and place.

As in the South African or Boer War to which comparison is often made in these early weeks, the geographical limits of conflict can also influence the terms which appear. ‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, as the Daily Express on September 1st had explained. War here is distinctively ‘European’ — Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and Belgium were, for example, all involved. Conflict had not yet spread across the globe. Language, obsolescence, and history can, of course, all neatly interact in the rise and fall of labels of this kind: the European war would prove ephemeral — not because war ended, but because it transformed into something  far larger. As the Scotsman on 11 September already suggests, its potential is already seen as such that it can be referred to as a great war; it stressed, without reservation, ‘the justice of the cause of Britain in the great war’.

Interestingly, as Clark’s notebooks attest, the diction of the world war, and other associated compounds, also appears within the first few weeks of conflict. The Daily Express on September 1st 1914 could, for example, also move with surprising rapidity into the diction of a war which was already seen in global terms. ‘The result of this world-war may depend on a very slight preponderance of force of either side’, it stated. Here, too, shirking was not an option; the obligation for everyone who could participate was made plain. As the Daily Express warned two days later, here providing another compound for Clark’s growing collection, the enemy was intent on world-dominationWorld-conflict was similar, used in the Scotsman on 15th September, as was world-Empire, which had been used in the same newspaper four days earlier. Such forms can, however, prove false friends in more ways than one. These early compounds with world- are not always what they might seem. As in the last three examples, they deliberately appropriate German habits of word-formation – and hyphenation – on analogy, as Clark observes, with forms such as Welt-politik and Welt-reich. This can, in the popular press, be used to provide a neat linguistic mirroring of the extent of German ambition, and the language in which this was expressed. As Clark realised, German – not English, was the driving force behind such uses, in ways which could prove remarkably prevalent over the early months of war.

As in the Scotsman on Friday 11 September, compounds with world- serve therefore to crystallize the aggrandizing ambition of the enemy, here with the potential to create a world-Empire. Reportage is from a German point of view; context is all-important:

war with France was received with satisfaction, as there were colonies to be annexed. England’s intervention was hailed with jubilation, as indicating the magnificent prospect of world-Empire that success would bring.

A further report in the Scotsman on Friday 18th September makes these critical differences of language and identity plain, setting a world-destiny used of Germany (and German ambitions) against a destiny that Britain must instead seize for the good:

Whatever the world-destiny of Germany may be, we in Great Britain are ourselves conscious of a destiny and a duty. That destiny and duty, alike for us and all the English-speaking race, call upon us to uphold the common rule of justice’

Forms such as these are, in effect, loan-translations – unfamiliarity acts to distance and divide. Newness hence co-exists with another aspect by which aliens (and the alien in other respects) can deliberately be set against apart. Punctuation – often ignored – can, as here, inform a highly critical reading. The Allies were intentionally fighting a European war – citations from German speeches, as reported in the press, stressed instead the desire for a world-war by which conquest might be far-reaching. Like the contrast between German kolossal and BrE colossal — which, as Clark notes, was another strategic and popular, opposition in contemporary accounts– the form of words could act as another image of nationhood, raising other issues by which people are seen to speak – or not – the ‘same’ language. In the words of the Scotsman, ‘we’, as an ‘English-speaking race’ were seeking a war in which a ‘world-destiny’ might not be realised. Language can be used to set up borders which, at least intentionally, put the enemy on the outside.

Being All-British: language and the politics of advertising in WW1

For Clark, advertising — even before war began – had seemed to offer fertile territory for anyone who might be minded to investigate the interactions of language and society. Brand names and the language of persuasion easily exploited other aspects of language and identity, playing on common anxieties and aspirations. As Clark noted, adverts played with meaning in markedly creative ways. War, however, quickly brought other new elements into play, mobilising particular patterns of meaning and connotation to good effect. Nationhood, patriotism, and purchasing could dovetail with precision.
Being All-British, for instance, emerged as a newly prominent locution. This was, and remains, a form unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its appearance as a new and hyphenated compound from the first days of WWI nevertheless acted, as a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks indicate, as a guarantee of quality which was closely aligned with new issues of identity — of both product and purchaser —  in a time of war. As soon as Germany invaded Belgium, commodities on the Home Front, as Clark observed, could be made symbolic of conflict in a wider sense. Buying products manufactured in Germany was popularly conceived as a form of patriotic betrayal, demonstrating a now untenable support for the enemy as well as evoking what was often referred to as ‘Teutonic taint’. Meaning, and use, of relevant words could shift dramatically, as in the ‘“Made-in-Germany” riot ‘which the Daily Express reported on September 26th 1914:

“The appearance of a van laden with cases conspicuously marked “Made in Germany.” created a lively scene yesterday outside the premises of a toy dealer in High Holborn…Soon an angry crowd of nearly a thousand had gathered’

One of the offending cases was set on fire, while the toyshop (outside which the van had parked), denied all knowledge of the consignment. The police were called to sort out the fracas which ensued. For Clark, this provided a new compound adjective, with markedly negative connotations – being ‘Made-in-Germany’ as applied adjective was self-evidently not being read by the assembled crowd as a signifier of quality (as it might have been before the all too partisan politics of war intervened). Instead, as the ensuing ‘riot’ confirmed, it was a form which, displayed on a set of packing cases, was able to evoke widespread opposition and distrust.
In contradistinction, as Clark observed, diction which proclaimed the absence of ‘Teutonic taint’ was deployed as an effective weapon in what seem a widespread war of commodities on the Home Front itself. Advertising for Lyons Tea in September 1914, for instance, made insistent use of this compound as it sought to gain tactical advantage over possible competitors: Lyons, as readers were told, represented an: All-British Company with All-British Directors’, as well as ‘14,000 All-British Shareholders’, and a product which was delivered to ‘160,000 All-British Shopkeepers selling Lyons tea’. All-British likewise heads an advert for Icilma cream (‘made in England by a British Company employing only British workpeople’). This statement was guarded by the visual image of two soldiers in profile, defending product and purchaser alike from any untoward – and unpatriotic — associations. All acted as an intensifer in both quantitiave adn qualitative ways.
Non-native names – like, say, the modern use of French — had, at least in pre-war days, intentionally conveyed the exotic and sophisticated. Yet, in terms of language and the play of connotation, this could now misfire; the non-native might easily prove a liability. Advertisements for Icilma in September 1914 as a a result carefully reminded readers of the links to Arabic rather than German for the name under which it traded: ‘The word “Icilma” is a trade mark, composed of Arabic words, meaning “Flows the water”, as it explained, with reference to “the beautifying Icilma Natural Water which is contained in this famous toilet preparation’ . ‘No other toilet cream contains this wonderful Natural Water’, it stressed. Its purity was thereby guaranteed in more ways than one.
The advertising of Hovis bread on September 12th 1914 conversely suggested an act of patriotic defamation in this respect. War could, it seemed, be fought on many levels, with diverse forms of attack and counter-attack.As the advertisement declared:

‘It having come to our knowledge that a rumour has been spread abroad that this Company is of German origin, we desire to state that this Company is and always has been BRITISH in its composition, is under BRITISH control and employs only BRITISH LABOUR.

It offered a reward of one hundred pounds ‘to anyone who can supply the Company with information leading to a conviction of the person or persons originating the false report’.  Clark’s intuitions on the value of advertising– and its language — would, as his later notebooks confirm, prove highly accurate. Across 1914-18, war – in word and image — could exploited for commercial advantage in a range of sometimes surprising ways.

Recruits and shirkers: identity politics in the early days of war

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee; L. S. and Co. Austrian National Library. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

To recruit, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, has long been in use in English. The first evidence of its military sense occurs in 1655; the corresponding noun was recorded from 1626. Yet, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the early weeks of war quickly brought other aspects of use into play. Here, too, Clark’s interest in ephemera of all kinds again clearly worked to good effect. Gathering up evidence of lexical and material culture alike, he quickly sent a set of recruiting posters for safe storage to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Meanwhile, in his notebooks, he commented on recruiting poster as a noun, finding only silence when he tried to look it up in the OED as it then existed.**

In the context of WW1, a recruiting poster was, Clark explained, a printed bill which invited recruits to join the army, He provided a clipping from the Daily Express on August 29th 1914 in careful illustration. The language of recruiting, as Clark’s first notebook records, would in fact neatly mirror the highly public pressure to join up, and ‘do one’s bit’. As the Scotsman reported on Saturday 5th September 1914, Edinburgh had recently witnessed both recruiting marches and recruiting parades. For Clark these confirmed two new combinations which also remained – and remain – absent from the OED, Continue reading

War on two wheels – the Mechanical Mounted Infantry

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28301

If ‘war in the air’ was early recognised as a salient feature of the events – and language – of WWI, then war on two wheels was another which also regularly surfaced in Clark’s first notebooks. As in combinations such as cyclist-detachment, cyclist officer, or cyclist troops, the bicycle was another vehicle of war which was often praised for its modernity – and evidence of progress — in contemporary accounts. From our perspective, this can perhaps surprise, revealing something of the innocence of these first weeks of war when tanks (and their own accompanying language, still lay in the future, as did the diction of gas as a form of attack). Clark noted down the following example from the Daily Express on 1st September 1914, which neatly set out the historical imperatives of change in this respect:

‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, the Mechanical M.I’.

Thie “Mechanical M.I”, as other cuttings explained in full, was the Mechanical Mounted Infantry. The Daily Express, as Clark observed, provided a useful definition too, for the advances apparently being made in this respect:

‘primarily the cyclist is an infantryman, a trained solder mounted on an iron-clad steed that moves on at an easy twelve miles an hour and requires no feeding or watering, no veterinary attendance, and no two days to four days rest’.

Clark here picked out iron-clad as another new use, especially in this applied sense. It meant a cycle, as his annotations explained.
Like war in the air, accounts of the military engagements – and utility – of the cyclist troops could,  also prove remarkably partisan. A report from a cyclist officer which appeared in the Daily Express on 1st September 1914 (in a clipping included in Clark’s first notebook) noted, for example, that ‘the cyclist troops of the Allies have already been in action and the new arm, the “mechanical mounted infantry,” even at this early stage of the great war, has “made good”’. As it added in further commendation: ‘it may almost be said to have scored a triumph’. For Clark, this neatly provided a trio of interesting forms, none of which had –or indeed have since — made their way into the OED.
The use of cycles by the enemy could, however, attract comment which was more critical – even if, from Clark’s point of view, it was equally useful in demonstrating the introduction and use of words. ‘It is really a comic idea to send a cyclist-detachment into Russia’, as the Daily Express – perhaps with some reason – recorded on Saturday 5th September 1914. ‘127 cyclists had been taken prisoner’, it reported: ’three squadrons of German cavalry, supported by a company of cyclists, were cut up by Russians’. The ‘poor cyclists have a very bad time on the Russian roads’, it stated in apparent sympathy.
As in other respects, Clark’s record of words in time can here vividly remind us of certain aspects of history which have perhaps faded in popular memory (as well as of combinatory forms which dictionaries such as the OED do not record). As history itself proved, however, the use of cycles as an active force in war – viewed with optimism in these opening weeks — would be equally subject to change and obsolescence as positions became entrenched, and a very different style of war came to the fore.

War in the air: Aug-Sept 1914

‘War in the air, so long the dream of the imaginative novelist, has become a terrible reality’, the Scotsman noted in September 1914, here in another clipping which found its way into Clark’s archive of words. For Clark, as his notebooks record, flight would serve as a particularly telling domain of language and history, providing — from the early days of war — compelling evidence of wide range of new collocations and constructions. New identities proliferated; attack, as newspapers reported, might now come from aerial enemies while a new breed of soldier-aviators were early recognised as important in the directions war might take. ‘We shall no doubt hear more of the desperate missions our fancy has usually associated with the work of the soldier-aviator’, as the Scotsman noted on August 18th 1914; ‘Precautions have been taken with a view to possible visits from aerial enemies at night’, it likewise recorded on September 8th, in a report on Paris at war.
Nevertheless, as Clark’s clippings demonstrate, explaining — and describing — these new realities of conflict could be difficult. Did one use aerial raid or air raid in documenting war in the air? Both appear in early pages of Clark’s notebooks, describing attacks on Paris and Rheims. ‘Interesting Details of the Aerial Raid’, the Scotsman announced on 24th September, for example, describing an ‘air raid’ made by the British on the German frontier.** The OED, as then published, maintained a conspicuous silence; the relevant sections had been completed in 1884. Here an aeroplane was ‘a semi-transparent fabric of the nature of a thin crape’, while an aeronaut was ‘One who sails through the air, or who makes balloon ascents; a balloonist. Clark’s evidence on aviator, aeronaut, and airman, of aviation school, aeroplane service, and aerodrome swiftly confirmed, in this respect, the language – and history – of a very different time. Similar was airmanship (‘’it was superb airmanship’, the Evening News stated on September 3rd). This, as Clark explained, referred to the ability to manage an airship (rather than ‘skill in managing a balloon’, as the OED had earlier stated). Such changes reflected on-going history with marked specificity.
As Clark explores, the framing diction of airships (which were likewise absent from the first edition of the OED) would, in this respect, come to inform a range of nautical extensions as journalists strove to report the events taking place across Europe. Attack by ‘a fleet of airships’ had, in fact, also long been the territory of the ‘imaginative novelist’ , as H.G. Wells’s novel War in the Air (1908) confirms. Yet as in the Scotsman on Saturday September 5th,, these terms were to be familiarised in fact rather than fiction, as in reports of the German aerial fleets which sailed across the sky in search of objects to attack: ‘Leiutenants Zalin and Rheinhardt of the aerial fleet have been awarded iron crosses for distinguished achievements’, the Scotsman noted; ’German Air Fleet to attack Paris’, it stated two days later. Aerial piracy becomes, by a further extension, another prominent image in these early days of war. As a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks confirm, this could convey the ruthlessness and depredation which piracy had traditionally connoted, while simultaneously being transplanted to the conditions of strikingly modern warfare. ‘The aerial pirate stopped in its swoops, and turned so suddenly I wondered it did not break amidships’, an illustrative clipping from the Evening News on 3rd September states.
Such forms also, of course, effectively demarcated the conditions of war in other ways. An aerial pirate was, of necessity, an enemy’s airship, as Clark confirms in his accompanying definition; it was, he added, one bound moreover on an errand of destruction’. A pirate here meant a ‘pirate-ship’, he clarified, rather than those on board. Piracy here defined the enemy – the activities of the allies demanded a different, and far more legitimatized, diction. Yet at stake on both sides was, of course, the conquest of the air – another combination which Clark early picks out in use, here in the Star on September 5th: ‘the conquest of the air has served to cloak the most infamous stain in contemporary history. It has demonstrated that the means of flying, in the hands of barbarians, have brought into prominence their savage, terrible, and ignoble brutality’.

** This still antedates, if by four days, the evidence of the modern OED. The entry for airmanship, in OED Online, likewise omits evidence for the war years, moving instead from 1879 to 1937 in ways which occlude the changing senses which are at stake. See “airmanship, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 3 September 2014.

Andrew Clark: collecting words and history

Andrew Clark’s biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography rightly draws attention to Clark’s ‘phenomenal energy’.** Clark was an inveterate collector of information – the Bodleian Library in Oxford contains a rich and diverse array of his findings whether in terms of ‘An Oxford miscellany, 1914′ (which includes a description of Jesus College buttery-books, and letters of inquiry addressed from abroad in 1906 to the University’, or a set of  ‘Antiquarian and Topographical Notes’ (based on the parishes around Oxford), or a detailed ‘List of Members of Oxford University who took the degree of B.A. in 1626-9’, or a collection of terms pertaining to wheelwrights. Scores of his hard-backed notebooks – packed with neatly written comments, labelled drawings, or newspaper clippings with careful annotation – are all filed away within the library, testimony to Clark’s zeal in recording what he thought might easily be forgotten in later years – whether this might be in terms of dialect words, or Essex school books, or descriptions of agricultural machinery about to be rendered obsolescent by new technology, or the ephemerae of modern advertising — or, as for the Words in War-Time  Project, the language of a specific period, and a particular epoch in historical change.

Clark was born in Scotland in 1856, the fifth son of a farm-worker. From these relatively humble beginnings, Clarke would, by 1871, be at the University of St. Andrews and, by 1875, at Balliol College in Oxford, where he gained a first-class degree in Classics. By 1880 he was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and its chaplain by 1884. Ten years later, he was resident in Great Leighs in Essex, serving as rector in a parish which was in the gift of Lincoln College. He remained there for the rest of his life.

By the time Clark left Oxford for Essex, he was also an established scholar – with a strong record of historical and antiquarian publications, especially in the investigation of the kind of forgotten materials which often lurked in college and university archives.  Once in Essex, he transferred the same interests to rural life and to remote parish registers where obscurity had long reigned. Clark collected and catalogued, depositing his findings in the Bodleian for the benefit of future scholars. Clark had developed a strong interest too in the Oxford English Dictionary – and the ways in which ‘historical principles’ and the ‘historical method’ might be reflected in language, and the play of a nation’s vocabulary through time.

The OED was another vast project, in which individual contributions and processes of collection were vital. James Murray’s 1879 Appeal to the English Speaking and English-Reading Public, for example, had urged people of all ranks and spheres to participate in gathering material for a historical dictionary –and what was to be  a ‘lexicon totius Anglicitatis’. People from Britain, America, Australia, and ‘the colonies’ were invited to join in a collective project in recording the ways in which language and history intersect  in English texts from Middle English to the present day. The Dictionary’s first  first volume, covering the words in A-Ant, was published in 1884, its second, covering words in Ant-Batten in 1885. Clark participated eagerly from the 1880s; publically thanked in the Dictionary, he submitted words and evidence, whether from his reading, or from his editing of early volumes which he undertook for the Early English Text Society — another enterprise which had been initiated under the auspices of the Philological Society and with the OED in mind.

Clark’s work often shows a clear understanding of the way in which history and language can unite. Yet, as Clark came to realise, historical principles could also be enacted in the present day, as much as the past; on-going history language remained a force for change in ways which often rendered the dictionary out of date as it was published.  As Clark noted, the Boer war had, for instance, clearly brought other processes of history into play, which might have benefitted from systematic record and documentation of language and history alike. The onset of war in 1914 seemed similar – as he observed, language was conspicuously being renovated under the force of contemporary history. War seemed, in this light, to bring a paradoxical fertility to language and its use, demanding new modes of expression or adding new meanings and compounds to forms which were  already in use.

If Clark had acted as a critical reader of the OED in the late 1880s and 1890s, sending a stream of  comments and information into the Dictionary, by 1914 he had decided to act as a critical reader in a very different way. Even outside the contexts of war, he realised that the OED had come to contain significant absences which were not necessarily being remedied by the information he dutifully sent in. Clark decided  to seize the opportunity he felt he had missed in the Boer war, and to craft an individual lexicon, using the kind of popular sources – newspapers, ephemerae, advertising, in which on-going history was, to his mind, most manifest (and which were, through popular pressures for the canonical, often – to his mind — being excluded from the OED).  James Murray’s earlier axiom that newspapers were the most vital sources for language – that they show how the language changes – could, it seemed to Clark, get lost in the published text of the Dictionary. A private lexicon could, in this respect, restore the balance. This was, in fact, something which Clark had been exploring even before war began – notebooks from earlier in 1914 already show him matching news articles and evidence from the OED in ways which already reveal the ease with which language can escape the lexicographer.

As Clark realised, however, a series of notebooks  also brought striking freedom – he could choose and edit his material as he saw fit, he could use the sources he wanted, and track the coinages and neologisms of English without the  filter of the published Dictionary (in which such words – at least when deriving from popular sources — were often disregarded). As war began, Clark was, within a few weeks, at work in creating a remarkable history of historical change, located in the language of the present day, and in the exigencies of on-going development. He began, at the same time, a vast War Diary – documenting daily life in Great Leighs – which would fill some 90 volumes by December 1918. While a selection of the diaries have been published (see Echoes of the Great War: the diary of the Rev. Andrew Clark, ed. J. Munson (1985)), and a digitized version also exists, Clark’s Words in War-Time series remains an largely unexplored resource, which nevertheless reveals the enduring value of Clark’s decision to apply historical principles to the  vernacular reporting of war for the Home Front.

** G. H. Martin, ‘Clark, Andrew (1856–1922)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://ezproxy.ouls.ox.ac.uk:2204/view/article/55619, accessed 4 Aug 2014]



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).


Allies and Enemies: taking sides in the language of war


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]

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

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. Continue reading