‘I am still in the pink. Terribly dirty, but as happy as a kid with mud. Still in the same place. Awful slaughter. Two more of our men were wounded last night by a shell. One had three fingers blown clean off’.
This letter was reproduced in the Evening News in October 1914 from where, carefully clipped out (and with in the pink underlined), it made its way into the Words in War-Time archive. Originally written by Corporal Bert —- [the surname is elided], it reassured his family in Walthamstow of his continued good health at the Front.
Moving from private to public domains, the letter hence participated in the contemporary recording of war (newspapers such as the Evening News regularly sought out first-hand testimony of this kind, offering, too, the promise of monetary reward).
Seen in term of the archive, however, it was to participate in living history of a different kind. In these terms, in the pink signalled a phrase which was, as yet, unattested in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the section dealing with words in the range Ph-Piper had been published eight years earlier, appearing in June 1906). It would, in fact, emerge as one of the most characteristic idioms of war-time discourse, constituting a familiar item in letters to and from the Front, as well as being appropriated into a range of other domains. Continue reading →
An advertisement for corsets isn’t perhaps the most obvious place to find information on language change in a time of war. Nevertheless, in the Words in War-Time archive, history and history principles were regularly – and consciously – applied both to ephemera as well as a wide range of non-canonical sources. Source-selection – and historical evidence – could avoid the overly literary or poetical, focussing instead on resources which, even if closely embedded in the everyday, might, as Andrew Clark recognised in making these collections in 1914-19, all too easily be lost to ‘oblivion’ – with consequences for historians and historians alike.
Corsets, then, offer an intriguing reading of gender, history, and war. Clark, as earlier posts on this site have explored, regularly assembled evidence on the changing dynamics of fashion – and fashionable accessories – as indices of war and its varied manifestation on the Home Front. Colour (the popularity in 1915 of what was termed Joffre blue) or form (the modish appearance of the casquette, based on the patterns of French uniform) could easily align female clothing and the discourse of war, rendering military a term which was not only resonant of strategy and the intricacies of tactical engagement but of style. While the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – still in progress when war broke out – defined military in exclusively male terms (‘Pertaining to soldiers; used, performed, or brought about by soldiers’; ‘befitting a soldier’), the military as illustrated in the Words in War-Time archive is therefore often far more wide-ranging. As Clark notes, for example, the OED’s entry was distinctly behind the times in this respect. Instead military was, as he confirmed, regularly used as ‘a persuasive in dressmaking & millinery’. Headlines such as military millinery (which appeared in the Daily Express in January 1915) was a case in point. The article announced the ways in which ‘The war has made itself felt in the millinery world in no small degree’ such that ‘the favourite hat for the spring is of a military type’. As it continued:
The military hat is especially suitable for morning wear, although its smartness makes it equally adaptable for dress occasions. A couple of rosettes are often rakishly poised at opposite ends of these close-fitting hats. One of the most notable of the military shapes is a striking reproduction of a field-marshal’s hat. It is carried out in soft pedal straw with the brim and crown faced with finest panne velvet, and is styled “Le General French”.
The military curve which appears in the advertisement above (as well as elsewhere in the archive) – in which military functions as a property of distinctly female underwear – offers further corroboration of this wider use.
As a collocation, military curve is, of course, interesting in its own right – the concept of a military curve remains, for example, unrecorded, and undefined, in the modern OED. Its real value, however, can be located in the wider significance it could accrue in contemporary forms of discourse between 1914-18. Continue reading →
‘The general health of the troops on war service’ is ‘actually better at this moment than it is at home’, the Scotsman announced in March 1915. ‘Modern Medical Science. Mitigating Disease in warfare’ appeared as the celebratory heading of a further article the following month. Even in July 1915, the same tone of congratulation was apparent; if some 6500 British soldiers had, by that point, been killed on Turkish soil alone, nevertheless, as readers were informed, ‘not even a microscopical portion of the fatalities is traceable to any weakness in the condition of our men’. ‘Our army’s extraordinary good health’ and ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ were soundly commended. ‘Never have soldiers entered upon a campaign in better physical fettle’, the Scotsman proclaimed. In contrast to the Boer War, when typhoid had ‘killed a far greater number of our men than did the enemy’, here, too, the conditions of an eminently modern war had come to prevail:
it is safe to say that had a war of the magnitude of the present struggle, and conducted like it under siege conditions, entailing great hardships, prolonged exposure to the most inclement weather, and the billeting of large numbers of men in insanitary quarters for many months together, been undertaken by the British nation a few years ago, it would have been accompanied by an outbreak of disease which would have decimated our forces
By no means restricted to the Scotsman, articles of this kind appear across the spring and summer of 1915 in a wide-ranging and robust discourse of health.
For modern readers, this evocation of good fortune amidst the realities (and casualties) of WWI can appear somewhat anomalous. It was resonant, too, of a certain proleptic irony. Headlines in August 1915, for example, foreground another new locution – and a previously unknown condition in which ‘physical fettle’ was noticeably lacking while the ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ had apparently disappeared. ‘Mysterious Disease like Influenza’, the Daily Express instead announced on 18th August, describing a rather different facet of life at the front. This was trench fever, an illness which, as its name confirmed, would come to be seen as yet another distinctive aspect of trench warfare. Continue reading →
‘If the Cap Fits You‘ appeared as the text of a poster issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. Like many advertisements both then and now, it played with a carefully calibrated set of meanings. On one level, the familiar idiom of ‘if the cap fits, wear it’ raises questions of identity and individual affirmation. On another, this idiom was targeted via a specific type of cap and the diction of direct address. As the image confirms, the metaphorical ‘cap’ is now to be seen in terms of the khaki service cap, while the obligation to ‘wear it’ is re-interpreted via the action of ‘joining- up’, and the identity politics of active service.
In terms of language, this can, in fact, raise other interesting issues. In 1914-15, the cap, as here, formed the prototypical image of the British soldier, functioning not only as an item of uniform but able to emblematise wider issues of national and ideological identity. Helmets, in contrast, operated in a similar way for the enemy. While helmet in the sense ‘a defensive cover for the head’, which is either made with, or strengthened with, metal, had long existed in English, usage from early in the war confirms a careful divide in this respect, As in the extract below (taken from the Scotsman in September 1914), helmet operates as a form of semantic shorthand or ethnonym (‘a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known’). In what becomes a pervasive pattern of writing the enemy, helmet connotes not merely an item of clothing, but the enemy per se.
German troops have apparently been interspersed with the Austrian soldiers in the entrenchments for the purpose of raising the moral of the latter. What this moral is worth is apparent from a report received from a correspondent on the frontier, stating that after the Russian attacks on the “bluecloaks” – namely, the Austrians – took to flight, while the “helmets” i.e., the Prussians, were prepared to die to the last man, and perished accordingly.
The German helmet, referring to the spiked leather and metal pickelhaube was to be a distinct, and distinctive, marker. In other words, To appropriate the diction of the recruiting poster, in this light, If the cap fits, one is British. if the helmet fits, one is not.
This does not, of course, mean that helmets were not used at all by the British troops — but rather that, until the autumn of 1915, core meanings and contexts of use were somewhat different. A demand for helmets was, for example, common from the early weeks of war. “You ask me if I want anything’, states a letter in the archive (reprinted in the Scotsman in December 1914). As the writer elaborated, the answer was a definite ‘Yes’: Continue reading →
To be under fire is perhaps an inevitable condition of war. Across the Words in War-Time Archive, the phrase appears with striking frequency, appearing in sources which report on action from the Front as well as in the purple prose by which, early in the war, the ‘sublime comradeship’ of war could, as in the extract below, be extolled:
Comradeship! It is a wonderful word, a binding of soul to soul, heart to heart in a bond that death alone can sever. Comradeship, which breeds simple faith, fine endurance, noble self-sacrifice rising to self-obliteration. What a splendid virtue! To see it on the battlefield, under fire, is to see it transfigured, consecrated into the sublime (Daily Express 10 Sept 1914)
Outside rhetorical positioning of this kind, fire occupied a prime place in military diction, whether in assessments of firepower (‘the total effectiveness of the fire of guns, missiles, etc., of a military force’, a word first used in 1913 according to the OED) or in offering accounts of fire-trenches – another form which antedates WW1 (it is dated to 1909 in the OED) but which was swiftly assimilated into the complexities of trench warfare after 1914. Fire-screens (in uses still unrecorded in the OED) and fire-steps become—among a range of other forms — other common components in narrating conflict at this time:
A major led his men instead of using them in the conventional fashion as a fire screen, and was shot down before he had gone twenty feet. A mere handful of soldiers had followed him, and these, too, were mown down by machine guns (Daily Express, 1915-03-02)**
From the beginning of the war, fire – as ‘flame’ rather than with reference to the various projectiles which might be used — had, however, also been used as weapon per se. A propensity to use flame was, for example, often depicted as a further manifestation of German barbarity, underpinning the characterisation of the enemy as firebugs in the sense ‘an incendiary’ or someone who was, by definition, inclined to use arson. Arch-firebug (in a particularly Germanic compound) was similar, while carbonize, as other posts on this site have explored, likewise comes into marked prominence in early news reporting (and atrocity propaganda).
Being under fire could, in such instances, be rendered strikingly literal. That the newly devised Black Maria was ‘intended to set things on fire’ is, for example,also carefully documented in Andrew Clark’s examination of the new words and meanings of war, while words such as fire-lightertake on newly specific senses in recounting German methods of attack:
Quantities of “fire lighters” – so indispensable to a German army on the march – are stored with tins of benzine one of the military depots on the outskirts of the city. It would be an easy matter for a brigade of these well-trained incendiaries to set Brussels ablaze from end to end in an hour.
Following came the bearers of heavy tubes of petrol fitted with sprays, with which they drenched the woodwork and furniture of each room thus exposed, then the firelighters with their long torches, smeared with a substance which makes them glow like live coals and emit an intense heat without flame.
Dated to September 1914, the firing of Belgian cities such as Louvain is thereby depicted as a two-stage process. Fire-lighters (sense 1) are devices which spray petrol which are used to prepare the ground. Then come the fire-lighters (sense 2) — the ‘well-trained incendiaries’ who, bearing ‘long torches’, ignite the fuel.
As other articles explore, however, still more terrifying was the conflation of these two stages by means of a single weapon. This yielded another new word together with a range of associated synonyms. As the Daily Express explained to its readers in July 1915, for example, it was the flammenwerfer which was used to direct ‘liquid fire’ not at physical structures such as buildings or streets, but at soldiers in the trenches. Continue reading →
‘Crime of asking “What’s yours?”. “No treating” rule for London’ states an arresting headline in the Daily Express of 20th September 1915. The article centred on what had become a highly topical issue across the summer of 1915, as well as on its linguistic consequences. Images of prohibition framed words and deed alike, while ‘treating’, and the associations of pleasure and generosity which this suggests, gained a new and highly prominent antonym.
By 1915, treats of various kinds arguably offered a sense of respite from the widening conditions of war-time austerity. Treating and no-treating had nevertheless assumed highly specialised – and negative — meanings as usage in September 1915 makes plain. Here, too, language in the Words in War-Time archive neatly demonstrates the process of change.
Treat, as noun and verb, had, for instance, been comprehensively defined in June 1914 in an entry published in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. To treat, it had explained, was ‘To entertain, esp. with food and drink’; it was to show hospitality to; to regale, feast, esp. at one’s own expense, by way of kindness or compliment’. If negative meanings were possible, these were highly restricted, being limited to treating for the purposes of ‘bribery, as at an election’. Relevant senses in the entry for treating itself were closely similar. As under sense 5, treating was ‘Regaling, feasting, entertaining; spec. the action of providing a person (wholly or partly at one’s own expense) with food or drink at a parliamentary or other election in order to obtain (or in return for) his vote; bribery or corruption by feasting (illegal in Great Britain since 1854 by 17 & 18 Vict. c. 102, §4)’.
The OED’s male pronoun (‘his vote’) as used within this entry deftly reveals other aspects of language and history which would also come to change by 1918. The language of treating, however, moved rather more quickly, narrowing in popular reference across 1915 to a set of negative meanings in which provision referred exclusively to alcohol, and generosity was firmly proscribed. Continue reading →
A souvenir, in the relevant fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary, first published in January 1914, was defined as a ‘token of remembrance’ – one which usually, as it specified, took the form of ‘a small article of some value bestowed as a gift’ and, as such, constituted something ‘which reminds one of some person, place, or event’. Souvenir spoons are recorded in a citation from 1893, and souvenir cards in a citation from the Daily News in 1900. Notions of value were, however, in reality, able to be constructed in emotional as well as (or, indeed, often instead of) monetary terms, being based in the perceived significance of the event or occasion, or the circumstances with which the object in question was associated. Above all, the souvenir was defined by its role in commemoration, whether in private or public forms. It was a keepsake, the Dictionary explained – something kept for the sake of remembrance.
That war was, from the beginning, also made part of similar processes of commemoration and active recall is also clear. Some of this was, of course, deeply ironic, in ways which already took meaning and use in newly distinctive directions. Souvenir, a word identified as unassimilated and ‘alien’ in the OED (being prefaced by the distinctive ‘tram-lines’ or || by which non-naturalised forms were marked out), would, for instance, quickly acquire a set of subversive associations. ‘All shells are called “souvenirs”’, as a ‘Letter from the Front’, reprinted in The Star in November 1914, explained. Souvenirs of this kind came to embody an ironic form of gift-giving in which the enemy proved extraordinarily generous. That the Allies were, in turn, rendered wholly mindful of the Germans by such means was plain; as in the previous post, the image of Tommy, sheltering in his trench while shells of various kinds whizz overhead, is highly evocative. Gifts of this kind were best accepted from a distance – as well as reciprocated in kind. Were Tommy to be unlucky, such acts of remembrance were moreover inscribed in all too visceral ways. An article headed ‘Argument over a Bullet’, detailed in the Scotsman in March 1915, records in considerable detail the argument which ensued between two hospitalised soldiers over the same bullet – the “souvenir” in question — which had, in fact, passed through both of them.
Blighty was, by the summer of 1915, one of the most prominent – and certainly the most evocative – of the new lexical items which had come to be associated with the war. Usefully for the Words in War-Time, archive, it had, by this point, also prompted a series of articles in the daily press which explored — in considerable detail — a range of aspects of its meaning and use. Even if blighty was by no means ‘a pretty word’, its expressiveness was undoubted, as the Daily Express proclaimed in July 1915: ‘In its inharmonious syllables there lies concentrated all the sentiment of “Home, Sweet Home” and a hundred similar melodies’. Blighty stands, it added, ‘for all that is beautiful’, representing ‘what every mother’s son in the trenches hopes to see again’.
Absent from the Oxford English Dictionary as it then existed in which the negatively connoted blight (‘Any baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin, that suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants, affects them with disease, arrests their growth’) was followed by words such as blighted, blighting and blik), blighty’s lexicographical heritage can instead be located in Anglo-Indian and the diction of the colonial past. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell provided, for example, an entry for the word bilayut (alternatively spelled billait) in Hobson-Jobson or, as its sub-title explained, A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms; Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive. Published in 1886, this has been described by Salman Rushdie as ’the legendary dictionary of British India’. Bilayut, as Yule and Burnett explained, was a word which, if deriving from wilāyat (‘a kingdom, a province’), had, in recent years, ‘come to be employed for distant Europe’. It signified absence, the sense of a familiar elsewhere from which the individual is, for whatever reason, separated. The forms billait or bilatee could likewise appear, as Hobson Jobson adds, in a range of items which connoted Europe rather than India, such as belatee panee – ‘European soda-water’ –which had become ‘the usual name for soda-water in Anglo-India’.
In 1915, etymological awareness of facts of this kind nevertheless remained somewhat hazy. ‘Etymologists will tell you that it is a corruption of the Hindustani word for Great Britain – “Belati” from “belati pani”, the “black water” which has to be crossed before Britain is reached’, as the Daily Express article had confidently explained. While word-history and derivation can hence be conspicuously awry, what remains true in the contemporary accounts of blighty which appear is the sense of a profound spatial (and cultural) divide which it involves, as well as the contrastive positioning of home and ‘other’. Continue reading →
For James Murray, editing the entry for khaki in the relevant section of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901, the word was marked by its ‘exotic’ and non-naturalised status. Its form is, he states, ‘non-English’ while its initial consonant combination presented undeniable testimony of its colonial origins. As Murray further explained in the Preface to Volume V of the Dictionary:
In those pages of K which contain the non-English initial combinations Ka-, Kh-, Kl-, Ko-, Ku-, Ky-, these exotic words may be thought to superabound; yet it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English of colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ’the white man’s burden’.
Murray’s comments can, in this, serve to reveal still other facets of the on-going discourse of history and the history of words (even within the OED). Nevertheless, khaki — with its heritage in Urdū khākī ‘dusty’, f. khāk ‘dust’ — was one of the words which was admitted into the Dictionary without question, being further picked out, in Murray’s prefatory ‘Note’ to the fascicle Kaiser-Kyx, as an ‘interesting word of foreign origin’ –even if, like similar forms, it is judged an ‘alien’ or temporary ‘denizen’ in ‘our language’. In the Dictionary itself, the entry is prefaced by the ‘tramlines’ used throughout the first edition to mark out words where naturalisation is in doubt. Khaki variously appears in supporting evidence within the entry as khakee, Karkee, Kharkie, or khâkee . Use in English is traced back to 1857 and ends in 1900, a point by which, as Murray notes, khaki, originally used for British Indian recruits in the mid-19thC, was, as in the Second Boer War, ‘a fabric … now largely employed in the British army for field-uniforms’.
By the summer of 1915, the status of khaki in ‘our language’ was, however, open to some reassessment. As the Words in War-Time archive explores, its form had stabilised while its wide-ranging familiarization (across a range of meanings and registers) was undoubted. ‘Exotic’ in origin it might be but khaki had, by July 1915, become the prime image of active service, used in recruiting posters and campaigns, in advertising (for a surprising variety of products), as well as in news discourse and popular comment in ways which permeated Home Front as well as military use. Khaki can be noun, verb, and adjective, making its way into a diverse array of compound forms. It can, as this post will explore, also assume telling figurative and metaphorical uses, alongside its role in specifying quite literal aspects of the material culture of war. Continue reading →
War economy n. (a) a measure taken in order to save money or other resources because of a war; (b) an economy, characteristic of wartime, in which a large part of the labour force is engaged in arms production, etc., rather than in the production of goods for export or for civilian use (OED)
1919 W. B. Yeats Cutting of Agate 16 The Print Room of the British Museum is now closed as a war-economy.
While the OED’s entry for war was written in 1921, war-economy would make its way into the dictionary only in the final volume of the four Supplements edited by Robert Burchfield between 1972 and 1986. Dated to 1919, the earliest evidence, as in extract given above, derived from the poet W. B. Yeats. War economy, and the exigencies of conflict as experienced on the Home Front, has, however, a far earlier history as detailed in the Words in War-time archive. Prominent from the autumn of 1914, it can, as the archive confirms, prompt a wide range of associated forms.
Economy in the sense ‘careful management of resources, so as to make them go as far as possible’ was. of course, already well-established (the OED traces evidence of relevant use to 1670). It would nevertheless, as Clark observed, emerge as yet another ‘catch-phrase’ of the war, often being made part of a wider rhetoric of sacrifice by which individuals could be seen to ‘do their bit’, and integrated alike into government advice and popular advertising. “Study economy and health’ was, as one advertisement proclaimed, a particularly appropriate ‘Maxim for War-Time’ — a premise realised in this instance by the injunction to drink ‘Pure Indian tea‘. Continue reading →