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.  An early example comes from the Daily Express in December 1914 in an article which attempted to survey early history of the conflict:

The Belgians opposed the German advance, and by a deliberate policy of terrorism, their cities and villages were destroyed, their children were massacred, and their women were outraged. The whole civilized world vehemently denounced this medieval brutality, but the German generals declared it was absolutely necessary to punish people who had dared to defend their own country and to prevent a continuation of their opposition by a wholesale frightfulness (Daily Express, 19th December 1914)

While war is, of necessity, a discourse of opposition, setting ‘them’ and ‘us’ apart, frightfulness, as thus configured, enacts a further sense of this divide, being used to separating legitimate acts of conflict from those which are, in various ways, depicted as profoundly transgressive. German frightfulness, deployed in what is described as part of ‘a deliberate policy of terrorism’, is characterised by a forceful savagery – and a violent disregard for human (and civilian) life. Malevolence and deliberation cluster around this apparent shift of sense which, in highly specific ways, draws attention to brutality and humanitarian crime,

While war is always frightful (‘causing fright, alarming’, as well as ‘horrible to contemplate, terrible’, as OED confirms), it is the determined pursuit of frightfulness which is, as here, therefore brought to the fore. Directed against innocent non-combatants, and embedded in a wider discourse of ‘barbarism’, frightfulness, in uses of this kind, was to be freighted with intensely negative meaning, being depicted as profoundly alien — in both human and linguistic terms.

English frightfulness and German frightfulness are, in this light, false friends indeed. If, on the surface, the words look the same, their origins are, in reality, entirely distinct. Rather than native formatives, it is German schrecklichkeit (and its direct translation) which was, in fact, to underpin the new sense of frightfulness which is documented from the beginning of WWI. ‘Only yesterday it was announced that the emperor William had stated that the only means of preventing surprise attacks from the civil population’ was to ‘interfere with unrelenting severity and to create examples which by their frightfulness would be a warning to the whole country’, as the Daily Express reported on the 28th of August 1914. As Clark confirms, this would be depicted as neither naturalized nor as a natural (and understandable) aspect of human behaviour. Frightfulness in WW1, he states, has an entirely specific meaning, associated with ‘Prussians’ as a direct result of ‘barbarities  in Belgium in August 1914’. Frightfulness, the Evening News amplified, meant, by definition, ‘monstrous severity, revolting cruelty’.

The moral polarisation which results is plain. An article in the archive taken from the Scotsman on May 12th 1915 is, for example, headed ‘Germany’s war on the Fisher Folks’. This deftly reinforces readings of unwarranted German aggression (‘Germany’s war’) set against the innocence, and vulnerability, of its victims, as in the rusticity and tradition suggested by the diction of ‘Fisher Folk’. The presence of frightfulness, made a familiar part of anti-German rhetoric and propaganda, contributes to the mobilization of emotional distaste:

Considerable speculation has been aroused as to the purpose of the latest development of submarine “frightfulness” in the attack on the fishing boats working in the North Sea.

Germany, the article further explains, is committed to ‘a mission of relentless and systematic destruction against unarmed fishing boats’.

Elsewhere, frightfulness, and its alleged manifestations, leads to the prominence of words such as carbonize and baby-killing in the diction of war. Carbonize, as Andrew Clark notes in assembling evidence for the archive, was clearly a favourite word in 1914-15. Here, too, meaning had apparently shifted in response to war. Included in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published in 1888), earlier use had been restricted to scientific experiment, prompting the definition ‘to convert into mere carbon; to reduce to charcoal or coke’. Yet, as Clark notes, this seemed remote from the motivated violence and human tragedy with which carbonize in WWI instead came to be associated. Clark instead documented what he saw, and defined, as a new and transferred meaning ‘to burn to a cinder’, as illustrated in the Star in September 1914:

he saw on August 26, not far from Malines, during the last Belgian attack, an old man tied by the arms to one of the rafters in the ceiling of his farm. The body was completely carbonized, but the head, arms, and feet were unburnt (Star, September 15th 1914)

It was, however, baby-killing, and its own capacity for transferred meaning, which would, however, become perhaps the most salient manifestation of frightfulness and its associated diction in the early years of war. This became a leitmotif of German barbarity, deriving from early accounts of alleged atrocities in Belgium but which evidently intensified (at least from a British perspective) following the German raid on Scarborough and Hartlepool in December 1914 (in which a baby, several children and over a hundred adults were killed, while 592 people were injured). ‘Scarborough’s Scorn for Baby Killers’, an article in the Daily Express on 22 Dec 1914 proclaims, for example, making further pointed reference to ‘Kaiser Herod’ is ways which reinforce ideological readings of unwarranted violence against innocent vulnerability. Agent nouns such as baby-killers, with the sense of wanton violence and deliberate bloodlust which these evoke, offer further transgressive synonyms for the enemy.

Yet, as evidence in the archive confirms, such forms also offer further shifts of sense. If baby-killing could, as in the widespread atrocity propaganda of WW1, be made to suggest literal acts of slaughter, its use was, in reality, more often located in extended senses where, as a synonym of frightfulness, it can graphically focalise a sense of moral disapprobation and outrage. An article in the Scotsman in January 1915 captures some of these shifting resonances:

Are not these words extremely temperate and reasonable when applied to the present state of affairs? When we think of the deep-laid plot to ruin our country, the latest exploit of “baby-killing” on the East Coast, above all the horrors in Belgium, the murders, the rapes, the mutilations, the shooting down in cold blood of unarmed civilians – atrocities, some of which would make the “unspeakable” Turk blush for shame … (Scotsman 2nd January 1915)

Here the inverted commas around ‘baby-killing’ draw attention to its extended signification. The sense of outrage is not defined by the death of a child, but by the wider framing of the attack on British civilians, and the sense of violation which this reveals. Such uses, later in the war, would become strikingly explicit. ‘The Hun baby-killing season opened last night, and unfortunately a number of innocent lives were sacrificed’, an article in the Daily Express, for instance, states two years later – metaphors of war as game, and vulnerable civilians as prey (and easy targets) are deployed in ways which intensify a sense of horror and distaste.

In terms of the annals of language, we might note, however, that – like the ‘frightful’ use of carbonize (see below) – forms of this kind, and their associated meanings, are unrecorded in the OED in which  babyism is instead followed by babykins (in connotations of a rather different kind). Yet, as the assembled evidence of the Words in War-Time archive suggests, baby-killing and baby-killers are both common and, in a range of ways, remain densely reflective of a particular period of use, not only as a record of events, but of the ways in which words too could be made a form of direct attack, as in the targeted shifts of meaning (and emotional manipulation) which negative propaganda and report often this respect.

** Carbonize. This was edited for OED Online in September 2008. While the entry is expanded, and the first definition turned round to read ‘To convert into carbon, charcoal, or coke; to reduce to (mere) carbon’, and other technical senses added, Clark’s figurative use remains unrecorded. The sole evidence from the war yers comes in the sense ‘To cause to react with carbon; to carbonize’, which is supported by a citation in 1914 (A. A. Dowd Machining Tapered & Spherical Surfaces (‘Machinery’ Ref. Bk. No. 121) ii. 38 : ‘The generating bar B is a 0.40 carbon steel forging, and the piloted end is carbonized, hardened and ground to a running fit in the bushing’). See carbonize, v. OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 16 March 2015.


3 thoughts on “Alien enemies: the politics of being frightful

  1. ‘Baby killers’ does seem to have a very specific origin – in the speech by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in response to the German naval bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough. Although it is a fairly literal translation of schrecklichkeit ‘Frightfulness’ today sounds fairly twee, I suspect this is because ‘frightful’ softens in the 1920s and becomes a sort of exaggerated comment on something not very fashionable. The use in 1914-15 does indeed correspond to our modern use ‘terrorism’- deliberate use of fear as a tactic.


  2. Hi Adrian,

    I found an ealier notebook in the archive, used just before the ‘Words in War-Time’ series begins in which Clark talks about frightfulness in August 1914. This new information has now been incpportated into the post above.


  3. Thanks Lynda

    This prompted me to have another look at John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities: a History of Denial – unfortunately they have no index entry for frightfulness or schrecklichkeit.
    But in terms of Wilhelm’s early use of it they provide some interesting context – they suggest that on balance it probably wasn’t the case that the Germans were using frightfulness as a deterrent but rather that by the end of August they were trying to retrospectively justify atrocities that had already happened. ( Horne and Kramer p.166). Admittedly the evidence is ambiguous. But explaining it this way does play in to the hands of their enemies ( and of course collective punishments as policy are clearly illegal even as a response to alleged Franc Tireur).


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