Nominative determinism: Boche, bosh, and other language games in WW1.


Battering the Boche. Royal Library of Belgium.

‘BOCHE, BOSCH, AND BOSH’ states an arresting headline taken from the Echo in 1915. Preserved in the Words in War-Time archive, the article which followed explored the use, and meaning, of another new word of war. First recorded in 1914, Boche – variably spelled as Bosche — formed part of what, at least ‘for the duration’, would prove a markedly over-crowded space. Alongside Fritz and Hun, Uhlan and Willie (‘soldier of Wilhelm’, as the archive explains), uses of Boche presented yet another way of writing the enemy. Replete with negative connotations (and able to be visually enhanced by the Germanised spelling with -sch), Boche came to designate, as in the examples below, someone, and esp. a soldier, of German ethnicity. It could be either singular or plural, noun or adjective, inflected or uninflected.

 ‘men huddled below the parapets, gazing through their periscopes, or sniping at invisible Boches’ (Daily Express / news / 1915-02-01 )

‘doing the “outside edge” round Jack Johnson holes, and Boches a mile or two ahead or in the rear’   (advertisement, Scotsman, November 1916)

Originally deriving from French (as a later entry in the OED would confirm), boche has been linked to Fr. boche ‘scoundrel’, perhaps drawing too on tête de boche, a stubborn, obtuse unintelligent person (a form already used in French before the war as a derogatory term  for a German). Other possible sources link it to caboche (‘blockhead’)  — of which boche  might be a shortened form — or to alboche (a form which appears early in the archive, and which represents a conflated form of Allemand and Boche, complete with further derogatory overtones). Alboche was ‘French Military slang’, a 1914 note in the archive confirms. If alboche was relatively resticted in use, Boche would, in contrast, prove both popular and pervasive.

Its range of uses can therefore illustrate one strand in the war-term assimilation of this form. More striking, however, as the Echo also commented, was the remarkable similarity, at least in auditory terms, that anglicised Boche and bosh had come to assume. This  offered the potential for a richly punning identity.

‘By one of the miraculous freaks of language the word conveys the essential idea to almost all the nations engaged in the war’,

the Echo exclaimed: ‘without any knowledge at all of French slang’, one could, in this instance, derive the precise idea of what the Boche really stood for.  Bosh – “twaddle”, “piffle,” or “rot”,  a further note in the archive explains. Just as in modern ideas of nominative determinism — coined in the New Scientist in 1994 —  this homophomic patterning was seen  as offering an essentialist truth. Names, the Echo suggested, might  be destiny in ways which, at least in this respect, could  only augur well for the outcome of the war.

‘This excerpt may serve to illustrate the infatuation of the amateur etymologist. Without any thing to go on except the sound of a word, he is ready with a very positive affirmation of its origins’

Andrew Clark caustically observed alongside this clipping, revealing a marked historical — and linguistic — scepticism for  language play of this kind.  If puns with bosh can tell us about the assimilation of Boche into English, their prophetic value was, he stressed, surely limited.  Change in language,  as in his wide-ranging documentation of words and meaning across the archive –was viewed as arbitrary, as was the relation of form to sense.

Nevertheless, forms of language play – and other rhetorical aspects of word as destiny – were to be a popular feature of war-time English. Bosh and Boche, as we have seen, relied on sound for the correspondences, and search for meaning,  which might be explored. Other consonances relied on visual patterning, whether as acrostics or anagrams, or in comment on the discovery of the hidden truths which words or names might perhaps conceal. Quite a few appear across the archive. As Clark notes, here revealing still further slippage in his habitual stance of objectivity:

‘Towards the end of October [1914] some feeble-minded person discovered treasured wisdom in arranging the names of the French and English Commanders in the field as

Here,  Joffre, in a further form of linguistic destiny, was made a quintessential component of the French (and vice-versa), in a seamless identity which was likewise deemed to prove the justness, and right, of the Allies’ cause. Similar affiliations were brought out by the Daily Express. In other forms of language as determinism, it deftly revealed the word ‘Allies’ which,  hitherto unsuspected, was, as it pointed out, embedded in a vertical arrangement of Japanese, Belgians, English, Servians, French, and Russians.


Correspondents to newspapers joined in the game, offering another ‘strange coincidence in the following arrangement of the names of the Allies’, here in ways which revealed the word VICTORS as part of a strategic – if slightly strained — vertical arrangement of SERVIA/ BELGIUM/ FRANCE/BRITIAN/BRITAIN OVERSEAS/ RUSSIA/JAPANESE.

Those who found themselves enthused by the transformative potential of gender roles in a time of war might meanwhile encounter determinism of another kind, as in  the ‘War Anagram’ which featured in the Daily Express  in March 1915. ‘KITCHENER’S ARMY’, it stressed

spells exactly:

Its creator, the Rev. A. Cyril Pearson, noted that this ‘connects the women of the Empire, through the Queen’s name, with work for the war’.

Language play of this kind – and there are many other examples – might seem somewhat incongruous in a time of war, and the all too serious concerns that this must, of necessity, comport. Nevertheless, as David Crystal has argued, the ludic is often unfairly disregarded in studies of language. It is, he states, ‘a badly neglected subject’ – ‘at best treated as a topic of marginal interest, at worst never mentioned at all’ (Crystal, Language Play 1998: 1). It is, in this light, to Clark’s credit that snapshots of this kind were gathered up as evidence not only of language attitudes, and the wider symbolic roles which language (however irrationally) might be made to play, but as testimony to a wider search for meaning which could encompass  language and contemporary events alike — even if, as Clark was convinced, this could, on many occasions,  mean clutching at somewhat insubstantial linguistic straws. Language games — like other aspects of a war of words — can reveal the wider play of ideology, propaganda, hope, and desperation, as well as a search for order, and reason,  amid a multitude of uncertainties.

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