Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.


University of OsnaBruck. Copyright under Creative Commons.

Long before 1914 and the advent of war, Samuel Johnson had pointed out that words, like citizens, exist in ‘different classes’. Some are natives, remaining in their linguistic homeland from the beginning. Others are denizens, having lived there for so long that they are virtually indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. Others, however, retain ‘the state of aliens’. If used in English, these – either in terms of form, spelling, or pronunciation – confirm allegiance to languages outside the nation state. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, still in progress during 1914-18, maintained these same divisions. Naturalisation was key.


The langscapes of war brought some interesting synergies into play in this respect. Political solidarities with allied nations could, as with France, yield a new influx of words. An ‘Entente-Gallicism’ seemed to be in operation alongside  the ‘Entente-Cordiale’,  the Daily Mail observed, drawing attention to the wide range of French derived forms which had appeared in public discourse and at the Front from the summer of 1914. As Andrew Clark verified in the Words in War-Time archive, this was a marked feature of the war, even if, as he rightly suspected, the majority of such words would fade out of use when war came to an end.

Words with traceable (or suspected) links to the enemy were rather different. German was ‘the Stigma’, as an article the Star in 1915 observed, here in documenting a campaign by the residents of German Place in London to have it renamed Tipperary Place. The Words in War-Time archive documents a variety of emergent shibboleths in this respect, as in the cultural silencing of terms such as wanderjahr:

 ‘Many servants are bent on taking what might have been called a “Wanderjahr” – the fates forbid I should use this word now’. Daily Express (March 1915).

   The renaming of ‘Vienna Schnitzel’ as ‘Spezzatine alla Milanese’ by Italian restaurants in London, or the disfavouring of kur and kursaal (in favour of long-naturalised spa) offer other examples. While a kur (in the sense of a ‘cure, a taking of the waters (in Germany or another German-speaking country’) reached a natural terminus in war for British citizens, early advertising for the kind of kursaal that might instead be found in English towns was shortlived. ‘War changes fashions’, the Evening News instead commented in June 1915: the ‘German ‘Kur has gone the way of its  Kultur’.  The ‘healing waters’ of Harrogate were just as good as the ‘alien waters’ of Carlsbad’, the Express noted in a similar vein. Graphotactics in kur and kursaal offered all too visible reminders of alien status, of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’.

Patriotism and popular proscription would, as a result, often unite in processes of this kind.This was, one should add, a practice which was by no means confined to English. Across the belligerent nations, ‘enemy’ locutions could attract equally belligerent response. Germany, in what the Scotsman in 1915 described as a ‘war on foreign words’, hence enacted a strategy of intended (linguistic) cleansing. A range of extracts in the Words in War-Time archive track German attempts to eradicate ‘detested English’ (as well as French, Italian, or Russian) from menus or other forms of cultural life. As the Express reported, here under the heading ‘New Names on German Menus. No French or English Words’:

The resolve of the Germans to be exclusively German and to expel even from their menus all foreign words has led to the compilation of a small book  which goes over the whole ground of the kitchen, and supplies substitutes for the very numerous foreign words at present applied to a variety of German dishes.

Writing in her diary in August 1914, the German schoolgirl Elfriede Kuhr likewise affirms the proscription of words such as ‘mama’ and ‘journal’, explaining (on 3 Aug 1914) that ‘at school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words’.

While war-time transfers from German such as Sturmreif or Einbeitsgeschoss, or  flammenwerfer and minenwerfer do appear in English, these remain unnaturalised, hallmarked by their Germanic form, as well as being restricted in use to a set of war-time references  (as the modern OED notes, flammenwerfer and minenwerfer  are now ‘historical’ –  fixed in both form and time). In contrast, and via a process of loan-translation, forms such as flame-thrower and mine-thrower instead served to provide non-alien equivalents for wider use from early in the war, visbly eliding stigma and shibboleth alike.

Strafe, then, is an interesting exception to this popular rhetoric of othering and alienation, or of loan-translation as a means to gain acceptance. By 1916, as contemporary comment confirms, it was seen as one of the most pervasive war-words, used not only at the Front but also in a range of transferred and domestic settings. It derived from German strafen (to punish), first coming to popular British attention in the German propagandist texr (by Ernst Lissauer) ‘Gott strafe England’  or ‘May God punish the English’ (see image above).

As an early example in the Words in War-Time archive notes (which is used, incidentally, as the first example in the Oxford English Dictionary):

1915   Scotsman 25 June 7/2   What is that expression the Germans use about us? ‘God strafe them.’ Well, we hope He won’t.

References of this kind were frequently woven into the texture of everyday reporting. Initially, these were restricted – as in the example above – to solely German use. An article headed ‘Home Life in Germany. A Scottish lady’s Experiences’’ which appeared in the Scotsman in February 1915 hence recorded the ‘exultation’ that she had witnessed among the Germans, alongside their ‘hatred of England’ which ‘increased daily’:

every morning, instead of greeting each other in the usual way, the household said, “May God punish the English’.

Here, the translated idiom offers an index of its relative unfamiliarity. Similar is an account in the Daily Express in early 1915 which described the Hindenberg blouse — an item of clothing previously known as the ‘Russian blouse’ but now renamed because ‘the Germans have ousted from their vocabulary everything that sounded British, French, or Russian’.  As the article added, the blouses were supplied with belts bearing patriotic inscriptions such as Deutschland uber Alles’ or ‘Gott Strafe England’.

Strafe would, however, also make its way into English outside direct references of this kind. The subtleties of the plural subjunctive in ‘Gott strafe England’ were thereby lost. So, too, was the original sense of ‘punish’. Instead, as evidence through the Words in War-Time archive attests,  ‘strafe’ could be a noun, signifying an attack or a bombardment, or a verb, here indicating a process of attacking or bombarding. Irrespective of German wishes, the enemy, on either side would, in fact, strafe or be strafed or, indeed, in a further coinage, assume the identity of a strafer (as ‘someone who attacks’ rather than ‘someone who punishes’). The German verb stem hence proved surprisingly versatile; in war, one might, for example, in various later refinements of attack, archie-strafe (attack anti-aircraft guns) or trench-strafe (attack trenches, whether from the air or on land). Strafing, in military contexts, gradually specified into its modern use, in which it signifies – in yet another transfer – a process of attack by air.

In early assimilations, strafe was often used in ways which suggest a process of linguistic alongside military retaliation –such that, by a process of ironic inversion, the enemy could get a taste of their own medicine in words as well as deeds. The art of strafing would, however, swiftly attract other meanings. A telling extract in the archive demonstrates, for instance, one such moment of transfer, here in a dramatized exchange (which also resonates with the multilingual contexts of WW1):

“All the same,” said Parsequin briskly, “you weren’t ready for the business. You didn’t realise what you’d undertaken.” “I’m coming to that”, said the naval officer. “You’re right about our preparations. But when I hear people straf-ing the Admiralty …’

“What ? Straf-ing: what is that ? Oh, très bien, splendid; I see ! Gott strafe England !”.

“That’s it. You’ve caught on’

Strafing here is verbal rather than physical (the Press is described, in similar ways, as being strafed by censorship in 1915). Elsewhere it can be used, more generally, to signify a process of complaining  (with or without a direct object):

That sub. who pushed of just now – has been strafing all the time because he’s been sent to a destroyer. Some fellows don’t know their luck’,

as an extract in the Scotsman in 1915 confirms.Even domestic discord – as the Daily Mail indicates in 1916 – could be deemed a form of strafing, while its use as a simple – if forceful — imprecation (‘strafe it’) was equally effective.

While spelling and pronunciation continued to vary (yielding straff, strarf, or strafe, pronounced with short or long vowies), its wider utility was therefore clear. Precisely like English words such as drive or ride, strafe moved easily between noun and verb; the German subjunctive inflexion in –e, ironically, proved particularly useful in this respect. As the Daily Mail proclaimed, strafe had indeed become a word of the moment, familiar and familiarised by 1916 in ways which encompassed civilian as well as military life. Strafing can, as in advertising for Cavander’s “Army Club” Cigarettes, hence provide a foil to the heroism and regulative masculinity of the”Flight Commander”  whose testimonial acts in much the same way as the modern celebrity endorsement:

 ‘”I want a cigarette that does not make me nervy, no matter how many I may smoke. This is really what every service man needs, and when I look over the old bus, before going up to strafe a Zepp or for a little diving or banking exercise, I appreciate a cigarette that suits me !’

Or, with similarly efficacy, it can be used as a form of entirely domestic warfare, in a popular pun on germs as Germans, and the British as clean fighters, on Home Front as well as elsewhere. As advertising for the anthropomorphised Lifebuoy soap (in the Star in 1916) extols   (in a set of lyrics to be sung to the tune of ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow”)

[He] “strafes” the germs and microbes/ He “strafes” the germs and microbes/ He “strafes” the Germans and microbes/ Gives HEALTH to all of us’.



The OED documents 85 loans from German entering English between 1914-18. Five of these are Yiddish. The majority of those which gain assimilation are in scientific lexis, and appear in British or American publications e.g. pelargonin, optochin, lyophile. Loan-translations are also prominent in this list e.g.foreconscious (<German vorbewusst ).

3 thoughts on “Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.

  1. It is a global phenomenon of course – the USA goes overboard with this in 1917 – with Sauerkraut becoming ‘Liberty Cabbage’ etc. The Russian’s famously change the formal name of St Petersburg to ‘Petrograd’ although the evidence is that no one really adopts it outside of official use.
    In the UK perhaps the most notable examples of the expulsion of foreign words are family names of aristocracy and royalty. Louis Battenberg is First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 and the family rapidly becomes ‘Mountbatten’. And then of course there are the Windsors (estd 1917). There also is a lot of Anglicization going on down the social scale (particularly of German sounding Jewish names) .
    Which leads to related matter – the rhetoric of ‘aliens’ and ‘naturalized’ is also very interesting- with naturalized becoming a term of suspicion.


  2. The Spectator of 11 September 1915 records a song of the trenches
    I shoved my finger in a woodpecker’s hole
    And the woodpecker screamed

    Take it out! Take it out! Take it out!



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