English Words in War-time

Life-savers. Language and self-protection in early WWI.

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Looking back at the events which had unfolded across Europe in recent months, the Scotsman drew attention in January 1915 to the ‘ingenuity’ which had been manifest in ‘man’s power over nature’ and the diverse ‘mechanisms of war’. Science, the Scotsman stressed, had led to a range of ‘new features’. Seen from the point of view of the Words in War-Time archive (in which this extract was included), such innovation was two-fold, demanding not only ‘ingenuity’ but a system of nomenclature by which inventions might be both recognised and claimed. Language and the material culture of war were densely interlinked.

As previous posts have explored, weapons and weaponry attracted a particularly creative set of naming practices (even if these often departed from the formal designations which their creators might have preferred). There was, however, a corresponding diction of protection and defence, of safety and the means by which lives might be saved. Life-saver itself, as Andrew Clark noted, was, for instance, yet another absence from the Oxford English Dictionary as it then existed. The same was true of life-saving. Both forms were nevertheless conspicuous during the war-years, especially in advertisements which deftly played on the emotions, and fears, of those who – for whaever reason — remained on the Home Front. The ‘BAYNES-PARKER PERISCOPE’ was a ‘Life-Saver’, an advertisement in the Daily Express proclaimed, for example, on Wednesday 14th April 1915. As it added, ‘4 /- will probably save your friend or relative’s life’. Advertisements for Life-Saving Waistcoats revealed a similar stance. ‘The toll of human life in naval warfare is far heavier, in proportion, than on land’, the advertisement began: ‘If a ship is badly holed she often loses most of her complement’. The life-saving properties of the product were eloquently set against the prospect of otherwise almost certain death. When inflated, it is ‘guaranteed to keep wearer head-and-shoulders clear of water indefinitely – fully clothed’. Hypothermia was another danger it might avert; as the advertisement added, ‘Gieves Life-Saving waistcoat is exceptionally warm about the loins, and is capable of inflation by wearer himself in 20 seconds’. Advertised before Christmas in December 1914, such qualities formed a further part of the commodification of comforts for the Front – where the ultimate ‘comfort’ might be the preservation of life itself.

Similar evidence appears in advertisements for the Riordan Life-Saving Waistcoat in 1915. Appropriating the visual form and lay-out of a news column, these suggested – at least at first glance — the informed tenor of reportage. ‘German Submarine Peril. IMMUNITY FROM DROWNING’, the ‘headline’ announces. The black border which framed the text — a common device, as Clark confirms, in 1915 — was especially effective in polarising discourses of life and death while enhancing pressure to purchase the ’life-saving’ properties of the product. ‘The appalling loss of life through the torpedoing of vessels by the German submarine pirates can be obviated by the use of the Riordan Life-saving Waistcoat which keeps a person from sinking while in the water’, the text of the advertisement further confirmed.

The interest in ephemera of this kind as a significant aspect of the historical and linguistic record is widely evident across the Words in War-Time archive. Products such as the life-saving waistcoat, and their accompanying language, have now largely faded into oblivion; life-belts and life-jackets now dominate the core vocabulary, the first recorded in the OED with evidence from 1858, the second attested from 1883. Life-saving waistcoats, patented in 1914 and endowed with an intentionally distinctive appellation to distinguish them from other available products, nevertheless remain absent from the dictionary, alongside other aspects of related diction from the early years of WWI such as swimming-collars and safety collars. The latter, as an article in the Daily Express made plain, was a further aspect of the consonance of human ingenuity with a war defined not only by the trenches but by the dangers of conflict at sea. ‘Safety collar for the Navy. New invention ordered for Every Man’, it stressed:

the Secretary of the Admiralty announced that arrangements have been made for a general supply of swimming collars to officers and men of the fleet … to be carried on the person when awake, and to be kept inflated near each individual when awake (Daily Express, 20th October 1914)

Another neologism in this context that caught Clark’s attention was the body shield. Still not in OED (the relevant section was updated in November 2010) this was, in fact, marketed extensively in WWI as yet another life-saving ‘comfort’ for the soldier at the Front. ‘You May Save his Life for 22/6’, as the advertisements proclaimed. Here, responsibility for life (or death) is placed on the exophoric you who is directly addressed, and encouraged to weigh up the cost of the body shield against the cost of life itself. Framing metaphors by which war is an economic transaction, and life is a commodity, are prominent. In war, the individual on active service might have to ‘pay a heavy price’ — or not, if the requisite protection is purchased (in which case the price is paid in rather more innocuous forms). ‘The Life of your husband, father, brother, son or friend is certainly worth 22/6’, the text concluded.

Diction of this kind, pervasive in the discourse of war-advertising, acts as a microcosm of the conflicted trajectories of protection and defence; those on active service at war must defend and protect, yet might lack adequate protection themselves. The cost of life can be presented in vividly economic terms, while advertisers adroitly manipulated the potential for discomfort on the Home Front too, as well as stressing the duty to protect those who had gone to fight. Purchase might therefore bring comfort in more ways than one; if anxiety is generated, it can – at least temporarily –be assuaged by purchasing, and doing one’s bit for those at the Front. Meanwhile, those on active service might receive comfort in a more material form, and perhaps – if the advertising can be believed – save their own lives in the process.

Texts of this kind  act therefore as witnesses to a range of often-forgotten forms of usage in which WWI had its being. Yet, as Clark noted, the ephemeral is interesting not just because of its vulnerability to time, but also because it can conceal other patterns which may, in time, become significant. As in advertisements for the Gieve Life-saving waistcoat, it was not only life-saving which was of interest in the Words in War-Time archive but gieve too. Just like hoover and biro in modern English, proper names have the capacity to become fully-fledged elements of the lexicon. Eponyms from earlier conflicts such as cardigan (

Cardigan, who was distinguished in the Crimean war) and balaclava (Gieve, for instance, could be used in interesting ways outside advertisements in 1915, as this extract from the archive demonstrates:

One midshipman, whose picket boat was blown to pieces under him in the Straits was asked by a foolish journalist in Malta to “give a young officer’s impressions of his experience”; but all the answer he gave was, “I just thought, Thank God I’ve got my gieve on”.

The article (taken from the Scotsman) was headed ‘Reluctant Amphibians’ and documented events in Gallipoli in the summer of 1915. Unglossed and uncapitalised, this use of gieve was obviously expected to be understood by the Scotsman’s readers in ways which demonstrated not only its prevalence*** but also its potential status as eponym. Meaning, as here, might move beyond brand name to designate the item in its own right. Watching words in war-time in mid 1915, the end of the story was, of course, by no means clear. As later posts will explore, Clark would instead continue to collect and catalogue, adding gieve (as well as a range of other brand names) to the diverse set of words in which he would retain an interest until the end of the war.

*** Similar evidence appears outside the archive too. ‘The Ardent gave a big lurch, and I bethought myself of my “Gieve” waistcoat’, H. W. Fawcett and G.W.W. Hooper’s, The Fighting at Jutland. The Personal Experiences of Forty-Five Officers and Men of the British Fleet (London: Macmillan, 1921).

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