Cutting words: language and the “censor” in WW1.

censor crop imageFrom the early days of WW1, the Words in War-Time archive documents not only new words and meanings but usefully draws attention to strategic patterns of silence or obfuscation. Language proves a highly flexible tool, while communication – and what is communicated – can be deflected to widely different ends. Miscommunication and propaganda (as other posts explore) offer interesting illustration in this respect. This post, however, will focus on  the absence of words — and what is, in effect, the imposed failure of communication by which meaning is deliberately obscured, and words rendered vulnerable to excision.

An early example of language and the intention to conceal appears in the metaphorical “fog of war” — another phrase absent from the OED as it then existed but one which was, as the archive observes, prominent from the first autumn of the war. As the metaphor suggests, if meaning can be discerned, it  presents a faint shadow of what might have been expressed. Information, and details which might perhaps prove useful to the enemy,  are, as the article below indicates,  shrouded in intended opacity:

The “fog of war” that has settled over this country screens the important movements of the allied armies as effectively as a stone wall built across France from Dunkirk to Ushant.

Written as we are told ‘near a British headquarters in France’, the article is strikingly non-specific. As a drafted definition in Clark’s notebooks confirms. the fog of war signifies the “withholding of information as to events in the theatre of war”.
The dynamics of language in this respect would, however, perhaps be most clearly associated with the diction, and activities, of “the censor”, in another pattern of change which came to hallmark usage in  WWI. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED had been published in November 1889; censors in the evidence it supplied looked to the classical past, and the magistrates of Ancient Rome, or expressed opinions on ‘morals and conduct’; the censor  referred to officials at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as to the pre-publication scrutiny of printed texts of all kinds. Censor as a verb was, it noted, rare.

Here, too,however,  war brought rapid and decisive change. As an article in The Scotsman in January 1915 explains, the censor, if formally (and grammatically) singular, must be understood to represent, in reality, a collectivity of people.  “The censor” seen in this light hence tellingly  embodies elisions of its own, encompassing a body of men who, as the article explains, are both “numerous” and “anonymous”:

Such an output might be thought to represent unusual activity on the part of that numerous and anonymous body of men who are all comprehensively classed as “the censor” … The Press representatives in attendance on that occasion plied the censoring staff from morning till night with messages from their respective papers, and the amount of blue-pencilling that was done was almost incredible

Inverted commas, as here, frequently accompany mention of the “Censor”, signalling a tacit acknowledgement of the euphemism – and elements of disguise – which are at stake. As a furtherdrafted definition in the archive confirms, the censor is best understood as ‘a military office charged with protecting circulation or publication of matter (in private correspondence or journals) likely to prejudice public interests’.

As this also makes plain, the remit of the Censor now extends in ways unforeseen by the OED before the war. Control can be exercised on private as well as public; issues of what might – or might not – be said affected letters from the front (which must, as in the image above, be ‘passed by [the] censor‘), as well as, say, the words of war-correspondents and the reports for publication which they sought to file. To be ‘passed by [the] Censor’ (another pervasive idion of war)  signals approval, and the absence of anything what might bring harm. It yielded, we might note, a set of associations which war-advertising was swift to seize, as in the ‘Passed by Censor’ which Perrier appended to its own advertising in December 1914. Relevant advertisements  used the conventions of a ‘Letter from the Front’ in which, while the name of its ostensible writer  — a ‘Captain —-‘ V.C.’ — is, courtesy of censorship, made to disappear, Perrier’s own name (and agency)  remain triumphantly on display, as in the heading ‘Perrier on the Battlefield at Ypres’.

Language and constraint are, in such ways, often  bound together, while censorship could, in reality, attain a paradoxical visibility in popular comment, Censoring, as another drafted definition explains, signals ‘deletion of words by scoring through with a blue-pencil’ (here in another distinctive meaning of the war years) while the act of censorship gains forms such as  heavily-censored – glossed in the archive as ‘With many passages struck out’, and censor-ridden, as well as censoritis, popularly deemed to be yet another prevalent affliction of the age.

‘The communiques which reach us from the French Headquarters, and even the scraps of heavily-censored news which are permitted publication by our own Press Bureau, all tell the same tale of progress’ (Scotsman, 21st october 1914)

This is an unusual kind of report for our censor-ridden days [referring to landing of French troops at Alexandria], (Scotsman, 14th April 1915).

Nonce-words such as censoritis offer telling testimony (alongside a certain critical response) of the rash of deletions which could accompany attempts to relay events to family and friends, or to the wider public.Perhaps stil more telling are the comments which suggest the extension of such practices to the spoken word too, such that press-censorship (a form which is extensively recorded in the archive) is accompanied by self-censorship, even within the confines of the home. As Clark records in his War Diary, Ernest Collingridge, at home in Great Leighs on 72 hours leave from France in January 1915, ‘does not feel at liberty to say exactly where his squadron is stationed’ – even to his wife. Watching words can, as here, become second nature, while silence could, in later years be a habit hard to break.


3 thoughts on “Cutting words: language and the “censor” in WW1.

  1. I’ve just had a look at Nicholas De Jongh’s book on the Lord Chamberlains Office and its role in ‘censoring’ the stage. Interestingly the Edwardian Office does not have ‘censors’ it has an ‘Examiner of Plays’ and ‘Comptrollers’. But Henry James does refer to them as ‘censors’ in 1909.


    • GBS writes a letter to The Times published on 29 May 1999 complaining of dramatic ‘censorship’. But it is certainly true that derivative forms based on censor take off during the war – Ngram shows ‘censoring’ to really take off in 1914.


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