Watching language change in WW1: on being a dud


“He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;

And then, of course, they started with five-nines

Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud”.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Counter-Attack’ (first drafted in the summer of 1916) reveals a ready familiarity with the duds one might encounter at the Front. Here, if the ‘five-nines’ in line 2 of the extract above reference the German 5.9 inch artillery shells, their high success rate is emphasised too. In the attack Sassoon describes, duds – shells which fail to explode – are absent. ‘Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst’, as the poem continues.

National Library of the Netherlands – Koninklijke Bibliotheek: Soldier with a 16 inch German “dud” which fell in the Belgian lines. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

It is nevertheless worth remembering that speakers of English from before war would have struggled to comprehend the lines as thus composed. As the first edition of the OED records – here in a section published in 1897 — duds in English referred primarily to clothing or to things. One could wear duds, or possess them. In neither case, however, did they resemble elements of military hardware. ‘Girls knit away small fortunes … on little duds that do nobody any good’, as Harriet Beecher Stowe stated in her novel Little Foxes in 1866. ‘How precious are all the belongings of a first baby; how dear are the cradle, the lace-caps, the first coral, all the little duds which are made with such punctilious care and anxious efforts of nicest needlework’, we are told in Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857).

Andrew Clark’s work on the Words in War-Time archive draws early attention to the shift which a few months of war had brought in this respect. Reading the Daily Express on Wednesday 13th January 1915, he found an article headed ‘Jig-saw of mud’. The text took the form of another ‘Letter from the Front’ – identified as being from a sergeant to his wife, and offering an important sense of authentication for the experiences that are described. Language and its changes, as Clark stressed, can, of course, be authenticated in similar ways. Here, for example, he found another form which attracted his attention.

’[The Germans’s] “coal-boxes” are quite scarce, and half of them they do send are “duds”.

Trench “slanguage” is again conspicuous. Unlike the five nines of Sassoon’s later poem, the coal-boxes (the high explosive shells which were fired from 5.9 howitzers) are depicted as being far more variable in their effectiveness. Duds as a specific form was carefully underlined, and gathered for the archive, while Clark notes the inadequacy of the definitions which the OED had so far provided for this word. None quite seemed to fit this new use; identical in form, its meaning had moved in very different directions. Clark hazarded a definition of his own. A dud , he suggested, was a shell – of any type — which buries itself in the ground without exploding. Its name, he added, derived from the ‘thud’ which was heard as the shell strikes the ground.

Clark located, too, a further example a few months later. Here, dud appears without the inverted commas which marked its earlier use, suggesting its gradual consolidation as part of the war-time diction Clark aimed to track:

Next day a shell whizzed past my ear as we were taking up sandbags to the firing line. It fell in a field twenty yards beyond me. I lay down patiently waiting for the thing to send me to glory, but as luck would have it it turned out to be a dud, and no explosion followed (Evening News, 10th May 1915).

Clark’s conjectures on derivation and the possible sound-symbolism of the name offer an interesting contemporary explanation. As previous posts have shown, the soundscapes of war often led to the deliberate retitling of the weapons of attack — and their effects. Crumps, whizz-bangs, and zip-bangs are all examples of the kind of diction which diffused from Front to Home Front during the war years. Clark’s comment that this process is ‘apparently’ the derivation – and line of descent for dud – signals a level of popular etymologising. As for other new forms in his collection, it’s clear that Clark had asked around, before venturing the explanation he provides.

As later revisions in the OED confirm, however, this narrative of change is probably just folk etymology – revealing the kind of common-sense assumptions by which we often try to explain a change in meaning. Dud, after all, rhymes with ‘thud‘—an interpretation by which dud might evoke the dull thump of missile into soft ground could seem a logical extension. Prompted by the war years, and perhaps by its own encounter with the Words in War-time archive – the OED would, in fact, offer a comprehensive revision of dud in the 1933 Supplement to the main dictionary. As it contends, dud in the sense of a bomb which does not go off has its origins not in sound, but in a shift of sense (traced to the Daily News in 1897) by which dud, long before the war, was already being used to signify a markedly inferior or defective version of something: ‘He admitted that he knew that he ought not to have sold the piracies, and that such works were known as ‘Duds’’, as the first evidence for this shift explains.

Nevertheless, just as Clark attests in the Words in War-Time archive, dud in the very specific meaning of a bomb which is not merely inferior but which fails to detonate at all, was to be a further specialised development of English in a time of war. As the still on-going work in recovering the duds of WW1 from the fields of France confirms (see, the experiential reality of duds of this kind was an all too common occurrence; modern estimates suggest, in fact, that about a third failed to detonate on impact,. The frequency of this occurrence hence informs the additional transferred sense which Clark records. For the OED, this was to be subsumed within the new sense 4 which was now provided for dud:

A counterfeit thing, as a bad coin, a dishonoured cheque; in the war of 1914–18 applied spec. to an explosive shell that failed to explode; hence … applied contemptuously to any useless or inefficient person or thing.

Clark’s evidence continues, however, to provide the first uses of this form in this specific sense. The OED’s revisions provides evidence from February 1915, and from the rather more prestigious Blackwood’s Magazine –rather than the Daily Express in which Clark first locates the form:  ‘Our weary hearts rejoice When Silent Susan sends us down a dud!’, as a poetic offering, with its own conspicuous use of this new diction of war, states (Blackwood’s Mag. Feb. 1915: 141). Poetry offers one type of evidence; private letters, and their appropriation into news discourse, another. As James Murray had earlier stressed, it is nevertheless in private use — and language before it attains what Murray termed ‘the dignity of print’ – where change is often first made visible. News discourse, as Clark realised, could in WW1 often seem to accelerate this process – affording the ‘dignity of print’ to transcripts of reported speech direct from the Front, or, as here, to private letters which exist in hand-written and personal forms, but which are rendered public witnesses to words as well as events, via the new genre of the ‘Letter from the Front’ in various newspapers. In the Words in War-Time archive, these often prove to be a particularly valuable resource, offering a way by which the ordinary and individual voice — as well as change in progress — can be made strikingly visible.


One thought on “Watching language change in WW1: on being a dud

  1. I’ve turned to the maestro for this – Hew Strachan, To arms, pp.1026-1028

    Germany had all sorts of problems in 1914-15 in shell production, a lower quality of explosives, shortages of copper for fuse mechanisms and the increasing substitution of cast iron for steel in the shell casings. Basically these casings which were used until summer 1915 were rubbish. So the frequency of shells failing was indeed pretty high at the moment the word dud seems to come in to use. And it had improved by summer 1916 when Sassoon writes.

    As for the language sense, there must surely be more evidence of dud meaning a shoddy/defective thing in the Edwardian period? I wonder if it has anything to do with sweat shop manufacture of clothes pretending to be better quality than they really are – an anticipation of ‘knock off’.


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