English Words in War-time

Rethinking the birth of an expression. Keeping calm and “carrying on” in World War One:

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Poster image via Wikimedia Commons

The injunction to Keep Calm and Carry on, with or without various mutations, has, in recent years, become ubiquitous. ‘One of the most recognisable slogans in British history’, as Henry Irving notes, it can, in modern English, be found inscribed on anything from mugs and cards to clothing or bags.

Its origins as slogan have been carefully located in WWII, being credited to the shadow Ministry of Information.  As Simon Eliot explains, almost three million copies of a MOI poster urging the populace to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had been distributed across the British Isles by the early autumn of 1939.  It was, nevertheless, to be a notably short-lived campaign.  A crisis of confidence– founded in concerns that it might seem patronizing or even annoying – led to its swift demise. Originally intended to strengthen the war-time spirit, and to reassure as a new war began, the posters were – with a few exceptions – pulped in 1940.

Slogans, however, also have beginnings and “carrying on” – as a specific injunction to maintain war-time resilience, and with particular reference to qualities of fortitude on the Home Front – already had a long (if forgotten) history. Devising their poster in 1939, the shadow MOI drew, in fact, not on a blank slate of language but made use of what was already an established collocation of war-time use.  Based in WW1 rather than WWII, the determination to “carry on”, had already featured prominently in a wide range of private and public discourses.

As war began in August 1914, uses of carry (and carry on) were, as we might expect, plentiful. Carry on had already been given three senses by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755; the recent entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in a section published in 1888) had expanded this to five. Discussion of the need to carry on the war, to carry on work, or to carry on the fight or struggle are easily found.  Carrying on is made a serious business often collocating with words of industry and labour. As in the example below, uses of this kind required a direct or indirect object.

‘many, too, must stay at home to carry on the daily business of life, to provide the means of feeding and paying the Navy and the Army, and even to manufacture the necessary instruments of warfare’ (The Times December 5th 1914)

Particularly prominent, however, are uses of carry on as it came to be used in another early motif of WW1 – here in the expressed determination to carry on business as usual, an idiomatic expression often credited to Winston Churchill though  it was, in fact, used by Lloyd George as early as August 4th.

Importantly, this construction signalled much more than a commitment to maintain the national economy, being deeply imbued with the morale-boosting resolve to maintain quintessentially British ways of life on the Home Front, irrespective of what the war might bring. Business as usual already had its own linguistic history (being in use in the 18th century). Coupled with carry on, however, it came to express a war-time mind-set, a state of ideological resistance – founded in a determination not to give in, and to continue unaffected, however bad things might become.

Are you ready and fit to tackle your everyday duties and to carry on “Business as usual”

as an advertisement for Iron Jelloids – identified as an ‘invigorating tonic – hence demanded in September 1914. Churchill, using this phrase in November 1914, was – to use a modern idiom – merely making use of a current meme. As in the Jelloids advertisement, business – and the duty to carry on is embedded in ‘everyday duties’, whatever they might be. By implication, anyone and everyone could participate in this national endeavour, and in the spirit of war-time resistence.

In England in this national crisis we [have] tried to carry on business as usual, we hoped with confidence for victory as usual, and we were determined to maintain justice as usual

As language history proves, business as usual would, in fact, assume a life of its own, often being used without the accompanying verb. Importantly, the same is also true of carry on in war-time usage. An interesting example of this separation appears in the Times in July 1915:

No more stern test of any man’s mettle could be imagined than he should have to “carry on” when death is doubly present in the mines below the water and the shells bursting above’…Those fishermen, too, who have continued to follow their calling have found that “business as usual” has not been without its added risks.

Carrying on here links both to the role that has to be performed, but also to the appropriate mind-set of performance – the resolve, courage, dedication, which ‘business as usual’ (which here includes mine-sweeping) might require.

Be British! Carry on!

likewise appears in a 1914 advert for Napier Motor Business vehicles, in an even closer correlate for the connotative values which carrying on came to acquire.  ‘The famous Acton Works … are carrying on business as usual’, as Napier went on to assure its customers:

‘whatever happens, we feel we must carry on and do what we are called upon for’

an article in the Times stated to similar effect in November 1914. In examples of this kind, carrying on exists in its own right, yet inferentially continues the sense of patriotic resolve of business as usual — not least in the expressed determination to be uncowed by circumstances, whatever these might prove to be.

While earlier uses of carry on tended to require a direct or indirect object (one carries on with something, one carries on the struggle, in which continuance of various kinds is the central issue at stake), these uses of carry on are therefore  intriguingly different. Often framed by inverted commas, these  usefully act as visual reminders or cues for the semantic nuances involved in carrying on in this particular sense. Individual examples thereby often move beyond a sense of simple continuity (i.e. merely carrying on in ways which correspond to previous states), but instead engage with a wider interpretative framework — based in the implied willingness to try and keep going, to shoulder the new burdens, and to make the best of things:

BEHIND THE GUNS. war has released the most terrible engines of destruction, the giant guns that have been so long preparing for The Day; yet the human element remains supreme. It is the man behind the gun who counts. And to all who “carry on” at home lies the duty of keeping fit — we are all “behind the guns.” Get the Kruschen habit, the daily discipline of half a teaspoonful of Kruschen Salts in a tumbler of hot water before breakfast ….(advertisement, Kruschen Salts, 1916)

As here, advertising could – as so often in WW1 – prove highly adept at appropriating war-time diction for its own ends.  ‘We’, collectively, are encouraged to carry on’, whatever this might involve – since in a nation at war, not least in one which, by 1916, involved both combatants and non-combatants as objects as attack, all are – literally or metaphorically, ‘behind the guns’. Endurance — on a range of levels — was vital.

The salience of non-combatants, and especially women in the activity of carrying on is, in this respect, often brought to the fore in contemporary discussions. An article in March 1915 in the Evening News, for instance, addressed the ‘Mobilisation of the Women’ as a striking new departure of war:

I have seen little more than the headlines in newspapers which announce “Mobilization of the Women”. I suppose it means that, at the last pinch, women must prepare to “carry on” while the men have gone to the wars in Flanders and elsewhere.

You will ask what they are doing now if they are not “carrying on.” For the children still have their breakfasts and their marching orders for school, the mysterious world of the household goes forward, the daily adventure of shopping, the daily achievement of the dinner-table. Yet the Board of Trade must require more, or it would have sent out no circular. …The Amazons are no extinct tribe.

Here, if certain domestic things still happen in the established patterns of the past (and therefore, by definition, “carry on” or continue in the older senses of the verb), what is now additionally to be carried on is of a very different order. The resolve and determination that women must now exhibit – in departing from their accustomed roles – is key, here invoking a state of patriotic engagement  and a willingness ‘to do their bit’ in compensating for the loss of male labour.

A CALL TO WOMEN …”The lesson we want to teach our women,” said Miss Pott, “is that they have not done all that is necessary when they have let their men go to the war. If they would only do the odd jobs that come along — hoeing turnips, for example — they would be helping to “carry on”. (The Times, 9 March 1916)

Carrying on can mean committing – with proper patriotic resolve and endurance – to the wider life of the nation, in ways which were –for many women– unprecedented in earlier years. Again, however, it is the attitudinal response which is made most significant, over and above the ways in which this might – in individual circumstances – now be realised. More is at stake than merely carrying on the hoeing.

Carrying on could, for the duration, therefore become a way of life, offering a range of well-established precedents for ‘Keep Calm and carry on’. As in the advertisement below, here from January 1918, carrying on was made into an effective linguistic symbol of resilience. Two short words could, with striking economy, be made to evoke the war-time spirit, with its complex layers of commitment and resolve, patriotism and endurance, as well as a refusal to give in, especially on the Home Front.

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