English Words in War-time

Zeppelinphobia !

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‘This item is from The Great War Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa); © [Dr Edmund Morgan-Warren]’

Zeppelins featured, of necessity, in the Words in War-Time archive from the early weeks of war. Reports in the Evening News in September 1914, for example, detailed aerial attacks on Antwerp in which zeppelins played a prime role (‘The Zeppelin airship which on Tuesday night threw bombs on Antwerp also attempted to blow up a railway tunnel near Wetteren’). As the early diction of the war confirmed, Zeppelin operated as a particularising adjective, modifying airship, rather than as a noun per se. Like shrapnel, it was, in origin, an eponym or ‘One whose name is a synonym for something’, as the Oxford English Dictionary explained  when the relevent entry appeared in October 1921: ‘In full Zeppelin airship: a dirigible airship; properly, one of a type constructed by Count Zeppelin of Germany in 1900’,

In the changing familiarities of the war years, airship was nevertheless often deemed redundant and Zeppelin — alongside contracted forms such as Zep and Zepp — instead came to function as nouns in their own right,as in the extract below:

The Germans are making much use of aerial scouting. Their usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives (The Scotsman, Tuesday September 8th)

As early news reports of this kind indicate, the nature of attack could, via zeppelins, be extended in new and terrifying ways. Zeppelin bomb is, for example, one of Clark’s earliest entries, documented on August 29th 1914 in the Daily Express. It meant, Clark explained, an explosive bomb which is dropped from an airship of the Zeppelin-type. Bomb drill, used in reporting the attack on Antwerp in the Evening News, is a similarly telling locution. The drill in question is to be carried out by ordinary citizens; attack is not restricted to the battlefield. A bomb drill signified definite instruction as to what is to be done if bombs are dropped on a town, as Clark notes in the Words in War-Time archive, seizing on another apparent conjunction of historical moment and linguistic response. Bombs, defined in 1887 in the OED as projectiles which were fired from mortars on the ground had, by extension,also entered another critical phase. This  underpins a further set of hitherto unrecorded forms such as bomb-dropper and bomb-dropping, both of which appear in the archive in September 1914. As in another newly prominent phrase, the conquest of the air was vital. Yet, as these early accounts of Zeppelin raids made plain, the consequences involved not just combatants but civilians too in what came to be depicted as a further manifestation of frightfulness. As the Star declared on Sept 5th 1914:

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.

Seen in terms of language, Zeppelin itself could nevertheless demonstrate striking productivity. Zeppelin in Clark’s first notebook exists in combination with attack and raid, shed and hangar, with factory and workshop in a wide-ranging language of both industrial process and attack. Hangar, referring to a space for Zeppelins and other aircraft, was, Clark pointed out, of special prominence in 1914-15. The OED’s earlier specification of ‘a covered space, especially …for carriages’ would, in this light, swiftly pass into history.** Interesting too, as the archive records, were other specialised developments which came into newly familiar use. Envelope, for example, had clearly gained a further sense; using established dictionaries was no help in this respect, Clark commented. ‘The covering of the gas-bag of certain flying machines’ was, he postulated, the definition which was now required:

It is stated that the Zeppelin VIII has been disabled at Badonviller. The airship had been manoeuvring for three days when she was impudent enough to descend to 40,000 feet. A battery of artillery hit the envelope, but only one compartment was disabled’. Daily Express, 31st August, 1914,

Outside denotative terms of this kind was, however, a further set of words which instead reflected the kind of psychological toll that zeppelins could have on the ordinary inhabitants of a nation. ‘Many people are suffering from Zeppelinphobia, among them some who ought to know better’, an article in the Daily Express stated in October 1914. Heightened German industry in terms of the construction of airships was, for example, often reported as evidence that the enemy was ‘steadily preparing an aerial attack on London, and on the east coast towns’ (here in the Daily Express on Thurs 26 November 1914). Clark’s ‘War Diary’ reports similar fears. ‘They suggest that the Germans now have a good base for airship operations against London and the ports on both sides of the Channel’, the Express likewise added.

If widespread, Zeppelinphobia  was, however, deemed to be entirely irrational. Form and meaning intersect in carefully calibrated ways. As other posts have explored, –itis, and its connotations in shellitis, neatly served, for instance, to delegitimise the seriousness of what is suffered, here in terms of shell-shock and how it is to be understood. Zeppelinphobia as compound operated, in reality, in a similar way. As the first edition of the OED had elucidated in 1906, phobias were, by definition, both abnormal and irrational, even if they might be ‘caused by a particular object or circumstance’. Seen in this light, Zeppelinphobia could simultaneously acknowledge Zeppelins as a locus of fear, while also dismissing such fears as an exaggerated (and unfounded) response – as least as they pertained to a potential attack on Britain.

Anxieties that Zeppelins might venture across the Channel hence neatly participated in a form of linguistic double-think across the autumn of 1914. Other forms recorded in the Words in War-Time archive, such as Zeppelin insurance, meanwhile, document the pragmatic (and, we might note, institutional) side-effects of anxieties of this kind. ‘A large amount of insurance against damage by hostile aircraft [was] to be effected’, as an article on October 28 1914 records. In terms of Zeppelin insurance, ‘Queen Alexandra’s wardrobe and valuables at Sandringham and Marlborough House have been insured for £60,000’ while ‘Westminster Abbey has also been insured for a large sum’.

By January 1915 –when the Zeppelin attack, and first aerial bombardment, took place on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn on January 19thZeppelinphobia was nevertheless in need of some reassessment. It had moreover, in terms of language, now been joined by Zeppelinism, another abstract noun which was indicative of the kind of anxiety and emotional response that attacks of this kind could generate, Recorded in the archive in January 1915, it designated a ‘new affliction of the eyes’ which, as the Evening News explained, was caused by the relentless scrutiny of the skies in anxious anticipation of another Zeppelin attack.

Zeppelinism – as well as Zeppelinphobia – would in turn move much closer to Clark himself. As Clark noted in his diary, for example, Constance Stoddart, the daughter of the dairyman at nearby Lyons Hall in Essex, was clearly a sufferer of a form of Zeppelinphobia. She had, he observed, heard so much talk about Zeppelins that they had become an overwhelming source of terror to her. By day, she had begun to jump at every whirring sound (caused, in reality, by passing threshing-machines or cars). During the night, she dreamt relentlessly of cowering under bushes, to escape being seen by air-craft hovering overhead. The local postman, in January 1915, likewise reported on the fact that many locals in nearby Chelmsford had taken to spending the night in their cellars. Yet, as history proved, such fears were not entirely without foundation. By April 1915, a Zeppelin would follow the Backwater River in Essex dropping bombs on nearby Maldon. Another attack would take place in August on Chelmsford itself.

Zeppelins and their reporting can, in fact, prove a particularly interesting aspect of the war of words. The fear they self-evidently generated was, in news discourse, often deliberately undercut in a form of meiosis or attempted semantic engineering. As in the reporting of the April attack at Maldon in the Daily Express of a hundred years ago (or, indeed, in the Punch cartoon illustrated above), any sense of German success is intentionally excluded by the targeted trivialization of what has been achieved. Zeppelins are rendered both immense, and singularly unimpressive. Large and visually threatening they might be but, in news discourse in 1915 (as well as afterwards, as later posts will explore), the accent, in terms of zeppelins and any repercussions they might have, is distinctly put upon the positive. ‘Tragic Death of a Hen’, the headline in the Daily Express proclaims. Like the lie-bureau of the Germans, British propaganda, and the massaging of morale, is clearly at work, deftly endeavouring to reposition the ways in which zeppelins both mean and are understood. The ‘Military value of [the] raid’, the article in the Daily Express concludes, was a definitive zero.

** HANGAR. A post-war addition to hangar in the OED tracked usage in the sense of air-craft to 1902, though evidence of usage during the war years remained absent. The next citation appeared in 1935.

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