English Words in War-time

“Pinkers”, “pink forms”, and being “in the pink”.

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‘I am still in the pink. Terribly dirty, but as happy as a kid with mud. Still in the same place. Awful slaughter. Two more of our men were wounded last night by a shell. One had three fingers blown clean off’.

This letter was reproduced in the Evening News in October 1914 from where, carefully clipped out (and with in the pink underlined), it made its way into  the Words in War-Time archive.  Originally written by Corporal Bert —- [the surname is elided],  it reassured his family in Walthamstow of his continued good health at the Front.

Royal Library of Belgium; Free Access-Rights Reserved.

Moving from private to public domains, the letter hence participated  in the contemporary recording of war (newspapers such as the Evening News regularly sought out first-hand testimony of this kind, offering, too, the promise of monetary reward).

Seen in term of the archive, however, it was to participate in living history of a different kindIn these terms,  in the pink signalled  a phrase which was, as yet,  unattested in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary  (the section dealing with words in the range Ph-Piper had been published eight years earlier, appearing in June 1906). It would, in fact,  emerge as one of the most characteristic idioms of war-time discourse, constituting a familiar item in letters to and from the Front, as well as being appropriated into a range of other domains.

As Bert confirms therefore, being in the pink could act as a kind of emotional shorthand, indicating the presence of  health and good spirits, of a continued robustness in the face of war. Yet the ease with which the pink can be lost is plain; if Bert’s own safety is stressed, others who had been fighting alongside him had clearly met a different fate.  The ‘slaughter’, Bert adds, is ‘awful’. While idiomatic uses of pink have a long history in English, here, too, war would foreground new patterns of use.

Its earliest meanings centre, for instance, on ‘the most excellent example of something’ or, as the revised edition of the OED explains, on pink  as ‘the embodiment or model of a particular quality’ — whether positive or negative. If Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet hence declares that ‘I am the very pink of curteisie’, Dickens conversely  draws attention, here in one of his own letters, to something he refers to as the ‘pink of hideousness’. This negative patterning would, however,  gradually disappear.  Instead, as in phrases such the ‘pink of taste;’ (1687) or the ‘pink of fashion’ (1893) – it came, above all, to denote ‘the ‘highest or most desirable state’ (OED Online, pink (n.), sense 3). Pink  commended and praised, across a wide range of uses.

In the pink presents, in this respect,  a further stage of development. As in Bert’s letter, pinkness has clearly narrowed in terms of meaning; it is restricted to domains of health and robustness, to vitality and life. In war-time discourse, it reassures with targeted economy, offering a convenient catch-all term which could, in practice, cover a multitude of conditions. If unreservedly positive, it is, as Bert also confirms, strikingly unelaborated. No additional specification is given.One is, or one is not in the pink. Patterns of this kind appear across the war, extending, too, into modern use.

Being in “the pink” would, however, acquire some interesting — if topical — resonances from mid-1915. As levels of volunteer recruiting ebbed from their hey-day in the autumn of 1915, the nation gradually – and inexorably — moved towards conscription. National Registration, introduced in the summer of 1915, was a significant step within this process; it required every citizen not yet in uniform and aged between 15-65 to register on  National Registration Day (15 August 1915). Men who had not hitherto volunteered – and who might be deemed to be lagging in the war effort (as well as attracting other negative aspects of identity politics in the diction of the shirker or slacker) — could thereby find their details transferred to what was widely referred to  as the “pink form”. It was here that those deemed enlistable, and sufficiently ‘in the pink’ to fight, were recorded. The visual irony was not lost on contemporary readers. The pink form literally placed men in the pink, according to their eligibility for battle.

The “pink form”, habitually framed by scare quotes, gains marked prominence in popular comment across the summer of 1915. ‘More speculation exists in regard to the “pink form” than to any other part of the registration’, the Scotsman notes on 18 Aug 1915. It was, it added, on ‘the “pink form” that the details of men of military age will be recorded after completion of national registration’. Even if, as it acknowledged,  ‘the “pink form” is not by any means a formidable document’, its introduction was telling. For men forced to register, this represented, as a variety of annotations in the archive attest, merely the first step towards compulsion, or compulsory military service. As the Scotsman ominously added:

It has been announced that further instructions in regard to the pink forms will be issued later – in the meanwhile they will be retained in the custody of the local registration authorities.

In contemporary discourse, being forcibly  put in the pink prompted other new conceptions of identity in response. Pinkers, the Evening News surmised, will henceforth be ‘men of military age’ whose ability – if not necessarily their inclination – to fight was undoubted. Perhapsers, it added, might be used to denote the category of men and women who could help in war work of various kinds, even if such activity precluded being sent to the Front.  The writer eloquently envisaged  what we might see as a pre-computer filing system, from which individual lives might, like commodities,  be dispensed at will:

If Mr. Asquith comes round to the Stores and says, “Good morning. Will you kindly let me have a million Pinkers for export to the trenches, and a million or so – they need not be quite so fresh or tough – for home use?” the assistants will be able to say “Nice line here, sir. 18’s to 25’s, warranted bachelors, with no dependents”—and so on. It can all be done as easily as buying a pound of salt butter.

The changing climate of war would, in subsequent months, bring a variety of other forms into associated topical use. A passporter, as the archive records, was, for instance, ‘a person who seeks a passport to get abroad, to escape conscription’. Against the robustness of those deemed in the pink, the pasty faces – a term of opprobrium widely used to characterize conscientious objectors, and those unwilling to fight at all  – reveal other implications of health and dis-ease. As in a range of contemporary texts, their unhealthy pallor — and absence of pink, both literally and metaphorically –forces a sharp contrast  with the popular imaging of healthy masculinity (and in ways which can be all too evident in the ruddy exemplars who prototypically feature in recruiting posters).

Neologisms of this kind –whether pinkers, passporters, or pasty faces, or, indeed, pink forms — are, of course, habitually absent form formal lexicography. If topical, they can be strikingly ephemeral, crystallizing the historical moment, or the undercurrents of meaning at a particular time and place. Yet, as here, they can, in a range of ways,  present telling images of other forms of anxiety and identity in the second half of 1915. As these confirm,  “the pink”, and one’s location within it,  would by no means bring reassurance nor, by any means, serve to raise the spirits.

© Lynda Mugglestone (2015)

 

 

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