Khaki in WW1 – much more than the sum of its colours

For James Murray, editing the entry for khaki in the relevant section of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901, the word was marked by its ‘exotic’ and non-naturalised status. Its form is, he states, ‘non-English’ while its initial consonant combination presented undeniable testimony of its colonial origins. As Murray further explained in the Preface to Volume V of the Dictionary:

In those pages of K which contain the non-English initial combinations Ka-, Kh-, Kl-, Ko-, Ku-, Ky-, these exotic words may be thought to superabound; yet it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English of colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ’the white man’s burden’.


Murray’s comments can, in this, serve to reveal still other facets of the on-going discourse of history and the history of words (even within the OED). Nevertheless, khaki — with its heritage in Urdū khākī ‘dusty’, f. khāk ‘dust’ — was one of the words which was admitted into the Dictionary without question, being further picked out, in Murray’s prefatory ‘Note’ to the fascicle Kaiser-Kyx, as an ‘interesting word of foreign origin’ –even if, like similar forms, it is judged an ‘alien’ or temporary ‘denizen’ in ‘our language’. In the Dictionary itself, the entry is prefaced by the ‘tramlines’ used throughout the first edition to mark out words where naturalisation is in doubt. Khaki variously appears in supporting evidence within the entry as khakee, Karkee, Kharkie, or khâkee . Use in English is traced back to 1857 and ends in 1900, a point by which, as Murray notes, khaki, originally used for British Indian recruits in the mid-19thC, was, as in the Second Boer War, ‘a fabric … now largely employed in the British army for field-uniforms’.

By the summer of 1915, the status of khaki in ‘our language’ was, however, open to some reassessment. As the Words in War-Time archive explores, its form had stabilised while its wide-ranging familiarization (across a range of meanings and registers) was undoubted. ‘Exotic’ in origin it might be but khaki had, by July 1915, become the prime image of active service, used in recruiting posters and campaigns, in advertising (for a surprising variety of products), as well as in news discourse and popular comment in ways which permeated Home Front as well as military use. Khaki can be noun, verb, and adjective, making its way into a diverse array of compound forms. It can, as this post will explore, also assume telling figurative and metaphorical uses, alongside its role in specifying quite literal aspects of the material culture of war. Continue reading

Austerity Britain in 1914-15: from war economy to radium bread.


Copyright. Imperial War Museum. The poster dates from 1917, and illustrates a later phase of what came to be known as voluntary food rationing.

War economy   n.  (a) a measure taken in order to save money or other resources because of a war;  (b) an economy, characteristic of wartime, in which a large part of the labour force is engaged in arms production, etc., rather than in the production of goods for export or for civilian use (OED)

1919   W. B. Yeats Cutting of Agate 16   The Print Room of the British Museum is now closed as a war-economy.

While the OED’s entry for war was written in 1921, war-economy would make its way into the dictionary only in the final volume of the four Supplements edited by Robert Burchfield between 1972 and 1986. Dated to 1919, the earliest  evidence, as in extract given above, derived from the poet W. B. Yeats. War economy, and the exigencies of conflict as experienced on the Home Front, has, however, a far earlier history as detailed in the Words in War-time archive. Prominent from the autumn of 1914, it can, as the archive confirms, prompt a wide range of associated forms.

Economy in the sense ‘careful management of resources, so as to make them go as far as possible’ was. of course, already well-established (the OED traces evidence of relevant use to 1670). It would nevertheless, as Clark observed, emerge as yet another ‘catch-phrase’ of the war, often being made part of a wider rhetoric of sacrifice by which individuals could be seen to ‘do their bit’, and integrated alike into government advice and popular advertising.  “Study economy and health’ was, as one advertisement proclaimed, a particularly appropriate ‘Maxim for War-Time’ — a premise realised in this instance by the injunction to drink ‘Pure Indian tea‘. Continue reading

The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums.

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading