Banned words: ‘No-Treating’ and the language of war-time prohibition

Copyright. Imperial war Museum, 1916.

‘Crime of asking “What’s yours?”. “No treating” rule for London’ states an arresting headline in the Daily Express of 20th September 1915. The article centred on what had become a highly topical issue across the summer of 1915, as well as on its linguistic consequences. Images of prohibition framed words and deed alike, while ‘treating’, and the associations of pleasure and generosity which this suggests, gained a new and highly prominent antonym.

By 1915, treats of various kinds arguably offered a sense of respite from the widening conditions of war-time austerity. Treating and no-treating had nevertheless assumed highly specialised – and negative — meanings as usage in September 1915 makes plain. Here, too, language in the Words in War-Time archive neatly demonstrates the process of change.

Treat, as noun and verb, had, for instance, been comprehensively defined in June 1914 in an entry published in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. To treat, it had explained, was ‘To entertain, esp. with food and drink’; it was to show hospitality to; to regale, feast, esp. at one’s own expense, by way of kindness or compliment’. If negative meanings were possible, these were highly restricted, being limited to treating for the purposes of ‘bribery, as at an election’. Relevant senses in the entry for treating itself were closely similar. As under sense 5, treating was ‘Regaling, feasting, entertaining; spec. the action of providing a person (wholly or partly at one’s own expense) with food or drink at a parliamentary or other election in order to obtain (or in return for) his vote; bribery or corruption by feasting (illegal in Great Britain since 1854 by 17 & 18 Vict. c. 102, §4)’.

The OED’s male pronoun (‘his vote’) as used within this entry deftly reveals other aspects of language and history which would also come to change by 1918. The language of treating, however, moved rather more quickly, narrowing in popular reference across 1915 to a set of negative meanings in which provision referred exclusively to alcohol, and generosity was firmly proscribed. As the Daily Express article mentioned above explained:

‘”What’s yours?” may be a forbidden phrase in London hostelries in a day or two. The fate of the time-honoured question will be decided at to-morrow’s meeting of the Central Liquor Control Board’. This was, as a further article explained, a ‘War Time change’ which would apply to the ‘whole metropolitan Area’.

Use of ‘no-treating’ is comprehensively documented; as the Daily Express added, here making use of another prominent war time-locution, ‘From Staines, in the west, to Romford, in the east, and from Watford and Walthamstow, in the north, to Epsom and Bromley, in the south, the cry “What’s your’s ?” will be heard no more for the duration of the war’. Only in the Houses of Parliament would ‘treating’ be allowed to continue, as a later article in the Star caustically observes.

The Star’s headline ‘Treating as usual’, hence neatly subverts yet another idiom of WWI – that of ‘Business as Usual’. Business, and more specifically ‘war-work’ ironically, had been one of the main drivers of the change. From the onset of war, a range of narratives appeared in which excessive alcohol consumption was deemed to impact on war-productivity. Work-shirker was, for instance, another new compound – with highly specific meanings – which often appeared in this context. Shirkers, during WW1, were, as earlier posts have explored,  not just those who were lazy but who conspicuously failed to “do their bit”, and — especially in 1914-15 –by volunteering to fight (the introduction of conscription in 1916 changes, but does not entirely negate this opposition). Work-shirkers in 1915 were therefore doubly proscribed; they were not fighting at the Front. But nor were they contributing to the war effort at home. Headlines such as ‘Work-Shirker to Pay £3 Damages’ must therefore to read in light of contemporanities of meaning which were firmly entrenched by 1915. As the article – taken from the Daily Express in March 1915 — further explained, the “Work Shirker” in question was a ‘Man who “Went on the Drink”’. The consequences of this were made plain:

‘A workman who “went on the drink” while employed on an important work connected with a war contract’ was ‘absent from work for several days and caused serious delay in the execution of the contract’.

Similar was the heading Work Shirkers (in the Daily Express in May 1915) in which 12 men ‘engaged on war munitions’ were fined for drunkenness. The demon drink underpinned a failure in productivity – and the vital supplies of arms to men who were actually at the Front, and for whom shirking – in either sense – was clearly out of the question. As Lloyd George stressed in April 1915, ‘Drink’ was as much as an enemy as the Germans in this respect.

The Words in war-Time archive can as a result be used to document anxieties about alcohol – and the increasing illegitimacy of treating in terms of alcoholic drink in a range of ways, whether in comment on absinthe and absinthe-drinkers (newly prohibited in France for similar reasons), or the attempted repositioning of tea as the treat of choice:

‘That time –honoured and historic phrase “What will you have?” is banned. To utter it now, within certain proscribed precincts, is an offence and condign punishment awaits the offender. But there is no ban on the famous Lyon’s Tea. You are at liberty to drink it, and treat each other to it, whenever and wherever you please.

Narratives in which exemplary tea-drinking, courtesy of British soldiers, was a force for good in France, countering both absinthe and the aperitif, can nevertheless lack a certain conviction:

The example of the British troops in the use of this beverage seem to be increasingly followed by the French, and it is quite possible that the vogue will spread, particularly as the prohibition of absinthe is favourable to this use of the new drink. In the same way the deprivation of vodka in Russia should favour the increase of tea consumption in that country (Scotsman 14th June 1915).

‘The indulgence in vodka will be largely replaced by a wider use of tea, coffee, and cocoa. The absinthe-drinkers of France are not as a clan likely to have proclivities towards tea, but an increase in the French consumption of tea may nevertheless be reasonably looked for as a result of the fraternisation of the Allied troops’ (Scotsman, 5th April 915)

First introduced in July 1915 (in a range of war munition areas), the no-treating order – and the attendant prohibition of “What’s Yours?’ –was widespread by late 1915 and remained in force across the war, making its way into popular advertising and popular comment as yet another change in the language of war-time Britain on the Home Front.  As in the opening image of this post, the alliance of temperance, war economy, and proper war endeavour would moreover gradually be extended, so that even treating oneself came to be placed outside recommended forms of behaviour. Austerity and alcohol could reveal a firm consonance. We might note, however, that — as a range of adverts in 1915-16 also carefully reminded readers (especially as Christmas approached once more) — the role of alcohol of a prime ‘comfort’ meant that  ‘the no-treating Order does not apply to the front’. Here, there was to indeed to be ‘treating as usual’, while generosity in terms of alcohol contined — as by Peter Walker beers — was depicted as a highly positive and  patriotic act.


2 thoughts on “Banned words: ‘No-Treating’ and the language of war-time prohibition

  1. The issue of ‘treating’ had come up during the period of mobilization with worries that soldiers were reporting to their units drunk having been extensively received free drinks from their friends. Limited localized anti-treating orders were brought in response to this.
    In 1915 the larger issue of civilian drinking became central. There were essentially two arguments- that increasing alcohol consumption was leading to absenteeism and therefore falling productivity (as mentioned) and also that grain was being diverted from being used for bread. These were why Lloyd George argued that drink was a worse enemy than the U-Boat. There is some limited evidence that the rise in wages in some areas in spring 1915 might have led to some increase in drinking. But it is worth noting that he was also playing to his religious nonconformist Liberal Party base which had campaigned for drink restrictions since the middle of the nineteenth century. On 1 April 1915 King George V agreed to abstain for the duration ( see Gregory, Last Great War, 96) which helped provide a context where the government could crack down on ‘abuses’. Anti-treating and restriction of opening hours were the main measures. Treating was seen as a problem because it was thought that customers would drink more if they needed to reciprocally get a round in.
    This did not go unopposed. There had always been working class opposition to the Liberal ‘cranks’ who wanted to interfere with the Freeborn Englishman’s right to a beer.
    ‘The League of the Man in the Street’ published a pamphlet condemning ‘the Clique of Teetotalllers’ and stating that men would not volunteer to fight against the tyranny of German militarism if they were to be enslaved by the ‘tyranny of the killjoy’. (Gregory, 109)


    • Yes, there’s some interesting material earlier in the archive on this issue re soldiers, drinking, and the Home Front, with restrictions on licencing hours being discussed in interestingly gendered terms, not least via the language of grannyism (matter for a later post maybe !). This already tends to focus treating in terms of alcohol (rather than food and drink — see OED entry) but raises some of the same oppositons between shirkers (who ‘treat’ but do not fight), and soldiers (who are ‘treated’, and rendered all the worse for wear — and active service — as a result). ‘Treating’is therefore an interesting linguistic issue from around October 1914 — but ‘no-treating’ in this specific form gets masses of attention over the summer and autumn of 1915 onwards. The issue of wages, and profligate workers, is also tied in with this in the archive, leading to some dire poetic outpourings in the ventriloquised persona of ‘Tommy Atkins’.


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