From the early days of WW1, the Words in War-Time archive documents not only new words and meanings but usefully draws attention to strategic patterns of silence or obfuscation. Language proves a highly flexible tool, while communication – and what is communicated – can be deflected to widely different ends. Miscommunication and propaganda (as other posts explore) offer interesting illustration in this respect. This post, however, will focus on the absence of words — and what is, in effect, the imposed failure of communication by which meaning is deliberately obscured, and words rendered vulnerable to excision. Continue reading
In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.
In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. Continue reading
Refugee was to be another prominent word in the Words in War-Time archive. This had, in fact, been another relatively recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in 1905, the entry had tracked usage from 1685 to 1879. Yet a conspicuous absence attended refugee as used in the context of war. In the OED as it then existed, refugees sought a place of safety as a result of religious or political persecution; historical examples in the Dictionary made reference to the French Hugeunots who came to England in 1685 (after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and refugees who emerged after the ‘American revolutionary war’ and who ‘claimed British protection’. Various sub-senses documented refugee as used with reference to migrating birds, or to mean a fugitive, or to indicate someone who was simply running away from justice.
None of these senses seemed, however, to match the realities of language in the autumn of 1914. Instead, as the Words in War-Time archive demonstrates, it was war, and the wide-ranging geographical displacement it brought, which came to occupy the prime sense of refugee. Continue reading
‘There are certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration than that of our speech’. This quotation from John Denham was used by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century as he gathered up his own collection of words for the Dictionary. Nevertheless, while written long before WWI, Denham;’s words remain interestingly resonant for the Words in War-Time archive in 1914-15. As Andrew Clark noted in the archive, ‘mode’ as seen terms of war-time fashion could display a striking consonance with war itself. Language moreover acted as a ready conduit for such ideas, revealing the new – and highly fashionable — prominence of items such as cartridge buttons or colours such as Joffre blue for the new season.
As Clark explored, diction of this kind easily testified to the popularity of war, offering other forms of allegiance and patriotic display. Patriotism, as the archive confirms, was particularly productive in late 1914-early 1915. Continue reading
Zeppelins featured, of necessity, in the Words in War-Time archive from the early weeks of war. Reports in the Evening News in September 1914, for example, detailed aerial attacks on Antwerp in which zeppelins played a prime role (‘The Zeppelin airship which on Tuesday night threw bombs on Antwerp also attempted to blow up a railway tunnel near Wetteren’). As the early diction of the war confirmed, Zeppelin operated as a particularising adjective, modifying airship, rather than as a noun per se. Like shrapnel, it was, in origin, an eponym or ‘One whose name is a synonym for something’, as the Oxford English Dictionary explained when the relevent entry appeared in October 1921: ‘In full Zeppelin airship: a dirigible airship; properly, one of a type constructed by Count Zeppelin of Germany in 1900’,
In the changing familiarities of the war years, airship was nevertheless often deemed redundant and Zeppelin — alongside contracted forms such as Zep and Zepp — instead came to function as nouns in their own right,as in the extract below:
The Germans are making much use of aerial scouting. Their usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives (The Scotsman, Tuesday September 8th)
As early news reports of this kind indicate, the nature of attack could, via zeppelins, be extended in new and terrifying ways. Continue reading
In February 1915, Captain Charles Myers published what he termed ‘A contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’ in the medical journal the Lancet. Presenting three detailed case histories, he concluded that, rather than ‘hysteria’, such cases ‘constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock’. Such studies were important in the legitimization of the psychological side-effects of war. Hysteria, as Myers was well aware, was a label which, unlike shell-shock, had widely served to undermine the seriousness (and validity) of what was being experienced by those who, traumatized, returned from war. Language, here and elsewhere, intersected with real-world history, documenting not only events but how events (and illness) were to be understood.
As earlier posts have explored, WW1 had, from the beginning, generated a wide-ranging vocabulary of nerves and nerviness. Long before the formal currency of shell-shock, the diction of to shatter the nerves was widely prevalent. It was an expression which was ‘in constant use’, together with related forms during 1914-15, as Andrew Clark observed, here alongside an entry in the archive from the Daily Express which focussed attention on the psychological stress of war:
The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it is intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up our handkerchiefs for the same purpose’ (Daily Express, September 2nd 1914)
Nerve-wracking as a distinctive property of the instruments of modern warfare, was picked up two days later in the Evening News. Both injury and attack could take many forms, Continue reading
Writing his Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, Samuel Johnson divided words from other nations into those which, as a result of frequent use, had become ‘naturalized and incorporated’ and those which, in various ways, ‘still continue aliens’ and are, as a result, to be placed on the borders of language. As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, however, war will often complicate this neat division. Even when German words are, for instance, rendered fully English in form, a sense of dissonance can still remain. Assimilation can be resisted; the alien, marked as ‘other’, can be placed outside the margins of acceptability, confirming the limits of what cannot, for a variety of reasons, be incorporated or made natural to the native tongue as well as to those who speak it.
Frightfulness presents a very good example of this conflicted identity. Its form, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, is entirely native, deriving from Old English fyrhto + ful + ness. Its use to mean ‘The state of being filled with fright’ is carefully recorded from the early seventeenth century. From slightly later, as the OED also indicates, frightfulness could be used to signify ‘The quality of causing fright’. Yet its uses in the Words in War-Time archive often accord with neither of these meanings. Continue reading
‘I trust that the appeal will receive the generous support it deserves so as to ensure that our brave soldiers and sailors in hospitals and convalescent homes will not want for the solace which means so much to them’
By 1914, smoke was, of course, a well-established noun. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED (in a section published in 1912) had traced usage back to Old English, Nevertheless, the only example of the sense ‘cigarette’ came from Walter Besant’s 1882 novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men.Smoke meaning ‘tobacco’, the OED further declared, was ‘now rare’ if not in fact ‘obsolete’. The most recent example was located in 1853. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, the war years would instead bring a striking prominence to cigarettes, smoking, and smokes as part of popular discourse. ‘Our heroes who are fighting on land & sea, seem well provided with “smokes”’, another missive from a tobacco fund declared, for example, in July 1915. A similar level of charity was, as it emphasised, equally requisite at home:
But what of those in hospital…with long hours of weariness & pain before them ? They need a smoke too, more now perhaps than ever before’.
Health warnings in WW1 can hence focus attention on deprivation and need, and on necessary provision rather than on targeted injunctions to break bad habits. An appeal for ‘Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors’ from the summer of 1915 Continue reading
Looking back at the events which had unfolded across Europe in recent months, the Scotsman drew attention in January 1915 to the ‘ingenuity’ which had been manifest in ‘man’s power over nature’ and the diverse ‘mechanisms of war’. Science, the Scotsman stressed, had led to a range of ‘new features’. Seen from the point of view of the Words in War-Time archive (in which this extract was included), such innovation was two-fold, demanding not only ‘ingenuity’ but a system of nomenclature by which inventions might be both recognised and claimed. Language and the material culture of war were densely interlinked.
As previous posts have explored, weapons and weaponry attracted a particularly creative set of naming practices (even if these often departed from the formal designations which their creators might have preferred). There was, however, a corresponding diction of protection and defence, of safety and the means by which lives might be saved. Life-saver itself, as Andrew Clark noted, was, for instance, yet another absence from the Oxford English Dictionary as it then existed. The same was true of life-saving. Both forms were nevertheless conspicuous during the war-years, especially in advertisements which deftly played on the emotions, and fears, of those who – for whaever reason — remained on the Home Front. The ‘BAYNES-PARKER PERISCOPE’ was a ‘Life-Saver’, an advertisement in the Daily Express proclaimed, for example, on Wednesday 14th April 1915. As it added, ‘4 /- will probably save your friend or relative’s life’. Continue reading
In the autumn of 1914, journalists repeatedly returned to the problem of what the Daily Express termed ‘the invisible foe’. War had become, quite literally, one of entrenched positions. Yet, as journalists pointed out, they could, as a result, be faced with a task of describing a confrontation which was, paradoxically, often removed from the powers of direct observation. ‘It is part of the impressiveness of this war that there is normally nothing to be seen’, as the Daily Express commented in November 1914:
When one talks of the front, meaning the point of nearest actual contact between the opposing forces, one speaks of something which cannot be seen even by a spectator standing (if one were so rash) within fifty years of the leading trenches.
Seeing – and the various exigencies of not being seen – would, as one might expect, bring its own pressures to bear on language, Continue reading