The Project

Andrew Clark was a scholar and historian and, by 1914, was already an inveterate collector of words and information of all kinds, much of which he was depositing in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  Looking back at the Boer War, he was fascinated by the linguistic possibilities of on-going history, as well as the ‘historical principles’ that an examination of language and contemporary usage might  reveal — especially in a period of decisive  historical change. War, he commented, was, in linguistic terms, an ‘opportunity’ not to be missed. If the ‘opportunity’ of the Boer War had, as he argued, been missed, he was determined to make the most of what history offered in any subsequent conflict. Too old to volunteer in 1914, he began instead a dedicated pursuit of words and meanings, recording lexical use and innovation as it was manifested in public discourse. While the ‘historical principles’ of the Oxford English Dictionary reached back to 1150, ‘historical principles’ for Clark would, however, focus on 1914-19, reaching beyond the formal conclusion of war to track language and memory, and the diction which appeared in the aftermath of conflict.

A long-time volunteer on the Oxford English Dictionary, Clark’s carefully assembled archive appropriates OED methodology — of citations and precisely documented evidence — in what swiftly became a far larger project than the twelve volumes initially envisaged.  Clark’s history of words in war-time ranges far outside the published lexicographical record. Importantly, his interest lay not in the canonical – what ‘great writers’ or trench poets wrote about the war. Instead, as this blog will explore, he focussed on the everyday realities of life as lived during the war years, narrating time and change through the words which were, in a variety of ways, to come into use across this time. Source texts include  a wide range of newspapers, including the Scotsman, Daily Express, the Evening News, and the Star, as well as in texts which derive from advertising and other forms of ephemera. Newspapers, as James Murray (editor of the OED 1879-1915) had stressed, were important vehicles in terms of language change – a means of watching the linguistic grass grow, as well as offering a striking responsiveness to history as it happened. Demonstrating his thesis that, as war advanced, the language was, in effect, being ‘reconstructed’, Clark would, as we will see, widely put this to the test, in ways which, in an era of ‘total war’, came to encompass Home Front as well as the diction of conflict, and its diffusion.

The project will run between 2014-2019. Thematic posts on this site will explore different aspects of Clark’s  thinking on the war, and the evidence he examines, looking at change in progress, and at the colonisation of new areas of discourse, at the intersections of language with ideology and propaganda, and at the varied patterns by which issues of language and identity — for both men and women — came to be manifested. Technology, innovation, advertising, as well as topics such as food and fashion, warfare and injury, illness and death, will all be covered over the duration of the project.

The Words in War-Time archive can be found at the Bodleian Library. I am grateful to the copyright holders — Colin Oberlin-Harris and Alison Mackenzie — for permission to use and cite from the archives.

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