Shellitis and shell-shock: language and the psychological side-effects of war.

In February 1915, Captain Charles Myers published what he termed ‘A contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’ in the medical journal the Lancet. Presenting three detailed case histories, he concluded that, rather than ‘hysteria’, such cases ‘constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock’. Such studies were important in the legitimization of the psychological side-effects of war. Hysteria, as Myers was well aware, was a label which, unlike shell-shock, had widely served to undermine the seriousness (and validity) of what was being experienced by those who, traumatized, returned from war. Language, here and elsewhere, intersected with real-world history, documenting not only events but how events (and illness) were to be understood.

As earlier posts have explored, WW1 had, from the beginning, generated a wide-ranging vocabulary of nerves and nerviness. Long before the formal currency of shell-shock, the diction of to shatter the nerves was widely prevalent. It was an expression which was ‘in constant use’, together with related forms during 1914-15, as Andrew Clark observed, here alongside an entry in the archive from the Daily Express which focussed attention on the psychological stress of war:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it is intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up our handkerchiefs for the same purpose’ (Daily Express, September 2nd 1914)

Nerve-wracking as a distinctive property of the instruments of modern warfare, was picked up two days later in the Evening News. Both injury and attack could take many forms, Continue reading

Alien enemies: the politics of being frightful

Writing his Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, Samuel Johnson divided words from other nations into those which, as a result of frequent use, had become ‘naturalized and incorporated’ and those which, in various ways, ‘still continue aliens’ and are, as a result, to be placed on the borders of language. As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, however, war will often complicate this neat division. Even when German words are, for instance, rendered fully English in form, a sense of dissonance can still remain. Assimilation can be resisted; the alien, marked as ‘other’, can be placed outside the margins of acceptability, confirming the limits of what cannot, for a variety of reasons, be incorporated or made natural to the native tongue as well as to those who speak it.

Frightfulness presents a very good example of this conflicted identity. Its form, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, is entirely native, deriving from Old English fyrhto + ful + ness. Its use to meanThe state of being filled with fright’ is carefully recorded from the early seventeenth century. From slightly later, as the OED also indicates, frightfulness  could be used to signify ‘The quality of causing fright’. Yet its uses in the Words in War-Time archive often accord with neither of these meanings.  Continue reading

Cigarettes and Solace: Writing the Comforts of War

‘I trust that the appeal will receive the generous support it deserves so as to ensure that our brave soldiers and sailors in hospitals and convalescent homes will not want for the solace which means so much to them’

In the Ambulance: A VAD lighting a Cigarette for a Wounded Soldier © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

By 1914, smoke was, of course, a well-established noun. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED (in a section published in 1912)  had traced usage back to Old English, Nevertheless, the only example of the sense ‘cigarette’  came from Walter Besant’s 1882 novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men.Smoke meaning ‘tobacco’, the OED further declared, was ‘now rare’ if not in fact ‘obsolete’. The most recent example was located in 1853. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, the war years would instead bring a striking prominence to cigarettes, smoking, and smokes  as part of popular discourse. ‘Our heroes who are fighting on land & sea, seem well provided with smokes”’, another missive from a tobacco fund declared, for example, in July 1915. A similar level of charity was, as it emphasised, equally requisite at home:

But what of those in hospital…with long hours of weariness & pain before them ? They need a smoke too, more now perhaps than ever before’.

Health warnings in WW1 can hence focus attention on deprivation and need, and on necessary provision rather than on targeted injunctions to break bad habits. An appeal for ‘Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors’ from the summer of 1915 Continue reading