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 funddeclared, 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 →
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Wilfred Owen , ‘Exposure’ (1917)
That wire or barbed wire could become a feature of sustained poetic interest would have seemed inconceivable before WWI began. A late nineteenth-century innovation (and credited to Joseph Glidden in Illinois), the term had, in fact, been omitted from the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in yet another instance which challenged its intended status as ‘inventory’ of the language as a whole. ‘Of a horse’, the OED instead specified under barbed, describing an animal which is ‘armed or caparisoned with a barb’. That steel and iron could be barbed or hooked was confirmed by evidence from the Bible, as well as eighteenth-century translations of the Odyssey or, most recently, a translation of Homer’s Iliad from 1870. In the dictionary, barbs are described in relation to spears and arrows, plants, and hooks — but not wire. Only in September 2009 would barbed wire gain its own entry in the OED (here as part of the on-going revision for its third edition).
In 1914-15, as Andrew Clark confirms in the Words in War-Time archive, these gaps In the historical record of words and their use could, however, seem all too plain. He noted down the absence of barbed wire in the OED, while tracking its sudden prominence – as adjective, noun, and verb — in contemporary news reporting. ‘They have prepared elaborate trenches, and barbed wire approaches to protect the position of the heavy guns behind the hillcrests’, an early report in the Daily Express stated on Saturday 19th September 1914. ‘The Austrians retreated on Yanov, where there were strong entrenchments with barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles’, another extract in the archive confirms. By October, as the Evening News declared, barbed wire was seen as a salient component of the war experience, being placed on a level with shrapnel in defining the perceptual reality of conflict, and the difficulties and dangers which this brought:
This barbed-wire war, which, next to the German shrapnel, is about the only thing our men frankly express a fear for (Evening News October 1st 1914)
To see shrapnel and barbed wire put on the same level can perhaps surprise. Yet other evidence which Clark assembled in the archive supports this view, stressing the sense of powerlessness which both could inflict. In contemporary news reporting, barbed wire can, of course, be used to evoke an idealised heroic disregard for physical circumstance, alongside an exemplary fearlessness; ‘Neither ditch nor barbed wire could stop them’, the Scotsman comments in another extract, here celebrating the Highlanders’ change against the German army in October 1914. Yet, as the extract below suggests, its connotations were often very different. The original agricultural uses of barbed wire were distanced. Instead it was repeatedly translated into a formidable – and forbidding – aspect of life of the Western Front. ‘Talk about entanglements!’, Private G. Watts of the Cheshire regiment exclaims, for example, in another ‘Letter from the Front’ which was subsequently reprinted in the Daily Express:
Give me shells and bullets before them. A man never knows how useless struggling is till he gets into loose barbed wire. Every movement mixes him worse, and he is lucky if he can keep his face out of the spikes. Some of our chaps will carry ugly marks all their lives. My legs are pretty well ornamented, and one boot is cut four times across the upper and toe (Daily Express, October 20th 1914)
Even if it had been used in conflict before the onset of WW1,it is clear that the use of barbed wireafter 1914 would capture attention, and imagination, in highly distinctive ways. Long before Wilfred Owen, barbed wire could serve as a form of shorthand for human vulnerability, and the toll that war could bring. An article in the Daily Express in May 1915 focusses, for example, on the ‘death-tortured no-man’s land’, depicting the ‘bullet-ploughed ground between the blood-spattered hedges of barbed wire’ (Daily Express, 15 May 1915).
As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, barbed wire was, in effect, to be complete with its own sub-lexicon (and other significant patterns of change) in what became another characteristic aspect of writing trench warfare. Entanglements, as Clark noted, was another term in constant use in 1914-1915, bringing ready familiarity to a form which, while a long-established part of military campaigns, was also consolidated in distinctive ways in the early months of WWI. Entanglements, as a range of citations affirms, were, in effect, to become synonymous with barbed wire;
Clark’s private life, too, confirmed its pervasiveness. A letter from his brother in Scotland commented on the wire-entanglements along the coast in Scotland in November 1914. Clark’s diary in December 1914 likewise provides a careful description (and diagram) of a barbed-wire entanglement as encountered on a visit to the training camp in Braintree; its short stakes are connected by two rows of wire, and with additional wire looped and relooped between the rows to form an intentionally impermeable defence.
Yet, as Clark added, entanglement in this sense was another absence from the OED as it then existed. Added later, the dictionary would usefully track usage back to 1834. It provided, too, the definition, 3. Mil. An extensive barrier arranged so as to impede an enemy’s movements; an abatis formed of trees and branches, or an obstruction formed of stakes and barbed wire. Yet, as Clark would have commented, this arguably misses the point, as least as far as Words in War-Time is concerned – in WWI, the key issue was the seamlessness by which wire and entanglements came to be yoked together – in language as in life.** Features such as these, and their frequent iteration whether in popular news reports and private letters, combined to give the resonant image of ‘the wire’ in the diction of WW1 – where the ellipsis of the characteristic barbed serves as an all too eloquent testimony of the prevalence, and deadly familiarity, of this aspect of conflict.
Entanglement. The OED’s definition (see entanglement (n.), OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 10 February 2015.) merges the various physical forms which entanglements can have. While accompanying evidence –see below — shows the historical development, what is absent is the clustered usages, and marked connotations, of WWI — in ways which would, for Clark, clearly justify his self-appointed enterprise
1834 J. S. Macaulay Field Fortif. iv. 83 The boughs of the brushwood..interlacing with one another, will thus form a very good obstacle, called an entanglement.
1876, 1879 [see wire entanglement].
1899Westm. Gaz. 17 Nov. 2/1 Where a wood enters into the scheme of defence, an abattis–in this case called an ‘entanglement’–forms naturally one of the best resources of the defenders.
1916 ‘Boyd Cable’ Action Front 47 Slowly and cautiously, with the officer leading, they began to wend their way out under their own entanglements.
1917 [see wire n. 1 e].
1922 Blunden Shepherd 69 They’ve all died on the entanglements
Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Counter-Attack’ (first drafted in the summer of 1916) reveals a ready familiarity with the duds one might encounter at the Front. Here, if the ‘five-nines’ in line 2 of the extract above reference the German 5.9 inch artillery shells, their high success rate is emphasised too. In the attack Sassoon describes, duds – shells which fail to explode – are absent. ‘Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst’, as the poem continues.
It is nevertheless worth remembering that speakers of English from before war would have struggled to comprehend the lines as thus composed. As the first edition of the OED records – here in a section published in 1897 — duds in English referred primarily to clothing or to things. One could wear duds, or possess them. In neither case, however, did they resemble elements of military hardware. ‘Girls knit away small fortunes … on little duds that do nobody any good’, as Harriet Beecher Stowe stated in her novel Little Foxes in 1866. ‘How precious are all the belongings of a first baby; how dear are the cradle, the lace-caps, the first coral, all the little duds which are made with such punctilious care and anxious efforts of nicest needlework’, we are told in Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857).
Andrew Clark’s work on the Words in War-Time archive draws early attention to the shift which a few months of war had brought in this respect. Reading the Daily Express on Wednesday 13th January 1915, he found an article headed ‘Jig-saw of mud’. The text took the form of another ‘Letter from the Front’ – identified as being from a sergeant to his wife, and offering an important sense of authentication for the experiences that are described. Language and its changes, as Clark stressed, can, of course, be authenticated in similar ways. Continue reading →
A marked feature of war (and comment on war) in early 1915 was, as Clark observes in the Words in War-Time archive, the labour shortage which arose following the departure of some two million men to the Front. Historically, this would be resolved, at least in part, by a range of changing opportunities for women to enter the workforce. In terms of language, as the Words in War-Time archive documents, this would, however, bring opportunities of a different kind – generating constructions which, in various ways, reflected women’s increasingly visibility outside the home. By March 1915, there were some ’10,000 Women War Workers’, the Daily Express recorded. Language and the women war worker, as Clark realised, offered yet another fertile domain of enquiry in his attempt to fuse historical principles with the documentation of on-going change.
War worker, as the modern OED confirms, is itself an interesting creation of WWI. Given as a coinage of 1915, war worker remains deeply expressive of the ways in which combatants and non-combatants were yoked together in the enterprise of war. War effort could be expended at home, while effort (and endeavour) of a different kind were demanded on the battle field. While women war worker, alongside other related coinages, did not appear in the OED, the Words in War-Time archive yields some very interesting results in this respect. Even in December 1914, Clark was, for example, carefully noting down airwomen, here in relation to the Russian Military. The Princess Shakovsky ‘has been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’, as the Scotsman recorded on December 2nd 1914.**
The novelty of such transferred roles under the exigencies of war would, in fact, generate plentiful evidence of relevant words. Agent nouns such as porter were, for example, formally unmarked in terms of gender – but their use, and meaning, had traditionally been constrained by underlying assumptions of male as norm. For the Star, for example, change in this respect was, in another telling combination, made to constitute a war phenonomen in its own right. Here the move from from porter to woman porter is described in ways which extol female willingness to ‘do their bit’ even as a certain surprise is evoked at women’s successful adaptation to the roles now being extended to them.
Another war phenomenon has appeared in the person of the women who understands time-tables. She does not speak of ten minutes past twelve, but of 12.10 with all the glibness of an accustomed traveller. She does not come panting on to the platform one minute after the train has gone, nor stand helpless amid a pile of luggage. If she is surrounded by luggage it is not her own, and she is far from helpless, for she is the new woman porter who has sprung into existence at Marylebone.
Traditional gender stereotyping – and its discriminatory overtones — could, as this suggests, both be challenged, and reinforced, in this respect. Woman porter, as other evidence in the archive proves, would by no means be an isolated example of this form. A similar article in the Daily Express, also from April 1915, celebrates the endeavours of the porters in petticoats for whom changed social roles – and sustained femininity – are made to unite.
As other news articles in the archive confirm, such shifts, and the overt gender marking which relevant forms acquired, formed a significant part of what was seen as war change – the transformative effects of war on ordinary life. Women carriage cleaners are recorded in the Daily Express in April 1915, railway women in the Evening Standard on April 7th 1915, and women air mechanics in the Scotsman (even if these are, in reality, French rather than English)
Women mechanics have proved very successful. A great number of them, having been employed in motor or engineering shops practically from girlhood, have become quite clever as turners or in the manipulation of machinery. They are found to be regular at their work and persevering and do not waste time. (Scotsman, 15th April 1915)
The Evening News even began its own collection of these changing images of identity:
Within the last few weeks we have had the girl district messenger, the lift-girl at Harrod’s, the girl ticket collector at Paddington, the girl in the newspaper stall on the Piccadilly Tube …’. (Evening News, 28th April 1915)
Evidence in the modern OED, we might note, can remain distinctly at odds – lift-boy, for example, is the sole form it records. Lift-girlsdo not appear. ‘Lift-boys always have aged mothers’, and ‘Chauffeurs, waiters, lift-boys…they are the operators’ states the accompanying evidence, in citations from 1904 and 1967. The Words in War-Time archive will therefore often tell a somewhat different story – tracking the changes by which gender and identity were represented and recorded in response to the social and economic pressures of the war years.
By May 1915, the Daily Express was even extolling the advent of the ‘the First Call Girl’ – a form which is, however, perhaps likely to be read with raised eye-brows when read outside the immediate context of war – and the register of the theatre on which it depends. As the OED confirms, a call-boy, is ‘a youth employed (in a theatre) to attend upon the prompter, and call the actors when required on the stage’. Call-girl in the OED has very different resonances (call-girl (orig. U.S.), ‘a prostitute who makes appointments by telephone’, being dated to 1940 with the evidence ‘Call Girls Die Young’). The call-girl of 1915 instead epitomises other aspects of war change. ‘Innovation at Shaftesbury Theatre’, as the Daily Express proclaimed.
Tovey, the call-boy at the Shaftesbury Theatre, has joined the Army as a trumpeter, and Mary Powell, who is only fourteen, has taken his place. She has the distinction of being the first call-girl in the world. (Daily Express, Fri 28th May 1915)
Some apparently transgressive forms can nevertheless be produced by the combination of changing social role and overt gender marking, as in the girl page-boy which the Daily Express records on May 11 1915:
The girl “page-boy” is the latest outcome of the shortage of labour owing to the war. She has made her appearance, neatly uniformed, in the service of a leading Harrogate hotel, and meets guest on their arrival at the railway station
Perhaps especially interesting in early 1915 is, however, the diction of the war woman. ‘The manner in which war is affecting the character of woman is a matter of vast importance’, the Daily Express commented. The war womanwho appeared, for example, in the title of a series by Miss Lorette Aldous, linked what was described as ‘real history’ (located in the female experience of war, on both Home and Western Front) with ‘a modern woman’s ambition and revolt’. Like her antecedent the new women, the war woman is thereby rendered interestingly transgressive; if she emblematises modernity by means of her confidence in taking on new activities in the public realm, she is potentially dangerous too, offering dissent, discontent, as well as ambition. As later posts will explore, such conflicted images can remain in evidence across the remaining years of war, as well as in its aftermath when women, no longer required to ‘do their bit’, were expected to retreat, invisibly, into the life of the home.
** Revision of the OED in March 2008 traced usage of airwoman to 1910. No evidence for the war years is provided, however, and a gap of 30 years intervenes in evidence after 1911. See airwoman, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 29, 2015).
By January 1915, Andrew Clark was by no means alone in his sense that language and war were intersecting in particularly fruitful ways. As an article in the Evening News, which Clark carefully extracted for the Words in War-Time archive, comments:
The ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him is well known, and with the development of new weapons the number of nicknames in use has been extended until they form a language which is most bewildering to a stranger.
The article was headed ‘Tommy’s Slanguage’ in ways which drew attention to the lexical creativity which already seemed particularly in evidence on the Western Front. Slanguage, a blend or portmanteau of slang and language, was — perhaps predictably — another form which drew Clark’s own attention, not least since, as he quickly established, it represented yet another absence in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published three years earlier, in September 1911). Slanguage was thus doubly valuable for the Words in War-Time project – as a word about words it had an obvious thematic pertinence. Moreover, as in Clark’s early emphasis on the kind of word-pictures which would be vital in reporting and recording war, slanguage was described in terms which drew attention to the visual and picturesque quality of the coinages which had, within the first months of war, already come into being.
Some elements of this changing discourse of war have already been discussed in earlier posts. In terms of weapons, Jack Johnsonsand coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Continue reading →
Disguise has a long history in war. Whether in the Trojan Horse described by Homer, or in Baden-Powell’s various military deceptions in the second Boer War, it is clear that, where conflict is concerned, things are not always what they might seem. In WWI this would, of course, lead to the new domain of camouflage, another innovatory lexical use which is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from 1917: ‘The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed ‘camouflage’, as the Daily Mail informed its readers on 25th May 1917 . Camouflage — in principle and in practice — was, however, clearly already being described three years earlier, as an extract from the Star in the Words in Wartime archive is able to confirm:
In the matter of sniping the Germans, thorough as always, are well prepared. Some of their sharpshooters are armed with rifles having telescopic sights, and are equipped with small bullet-proof shields, the latter being painted in cubist patterns in futurist colours in order to obtain concealment by confusion [Star, Wed 16 December 1914 p.6],
In such early experiments, visual patterns act to conceal — and confuse. The identity of that which is camouflaged is not easily apparent. Disguise can bring tactical advantage and perhaps resounding success.
Language, as the Words in War-Time archive reveals, can often be made to play a similar role, skewing presentations in one direction or another. As an earlier post has explored (**), compounds such as lie-factory and fiction-factory can assume prominent roles in emphasizing the duplicity of German propaganda and news reports (at least when seen through British eyes). Truth and falsehood can be strategic as well as moral antonyms, mobilised to claim the moral high ground or to undermine the enemy.
An article in the Daily Express, recorded in one of the early notebooks, provides a case in point. It was presumably included in the Words in War-Time collection because of its evident play with language as part of both attack and defence. As the article confirms, conflict can be a war of words in a surprising variety of ways. ‘”VE VOS VILTS”. GERMAN RUSE SPOILED BY A WELLERISM’, the title of the article states. It refers, in essence, to a ruse de guerre – here in another term for military trickery which was well-established in English from the mid-eighteenth century. Ruse, in the heading, is used in this special sense; a ruse de guerre, as the OED explains, is ‘A stratagem; esp. one intended to deceive an enemy in war. Hence: a justifiable trick or deception’. Legitimate – and illegitimate – uses had been further elaborated by the Geneva Convention of 1907. While ambushes and unexpected attacks were indeed sanctioned as justifaiblet, other actions – such as the ruse by which an enemy’s clothing might be assumed as part of military disguise – were not. It is this, at least in part, which is detailed here:
One of the most illuminating stories of a German ruse is told by a wounded non-commissioned regiment who had returned to Colchester..The front ranks of a German regiment which was advancing against a British position were dressed in uniforms taken from dead and wounded of the Wiltshire Regiment (Daily Express, September 29th 1914)
Yet the article turns not just on the appropriation of items of clothing, but on manifestations of voice too. If uniforms can be assumed with apparent ease, the native language can’t. Rendered visually identical to the remaining Wiltshires, the Germans initially advance unopposed. Only when they speak does the disguise slip; in the narrative of this encounter, language proves their downfall.
The British officer who saw them approach was suspicious, and as a precaution gave the order “Fix bayonets.” From the advancing ranks came a shout:
“Leedle mistake ! Ve vos not Shermans. Ve vos der Vilts.”
Here, the account, presented as a witness statement from a soldier convalescing at home, makes effective use of both English and German language stereotypes. On one level, ‘Ve wos der Vilts’ plays on easily recognised images of German infelicity in speaking English, and the /v/ /w/ confusion which often results. Yet, as the reference to Wellerism in the title suggests, the Germans are also made to evoke other — and particulary British –stereotypes of identity. If they speak ‘English’, their representation hence draws on a wide-ranging tradition of cockney speakers such as Dickens’s boot-cleaner Sam Weller (from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)) whose v/w/ confusion had long been a touchstone for comedic effect, evoking laughter as well as lack of authority. ‘Two coves in vhite aprons – touches their hats ven you walk in’; ‘A vidower he vos, and fat enough for anything’. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money’, as Sam variously states (all examples from Pickwick, Chapter 10).
For the Germans, linguistic disguise is therefore made to slip in a variety of ways – dressed like men from Wiltshire and self-identifying as such (‘der Vilts’), the Germans are instead represented as sounding like outdated Victorian cockneys, with all the low status and comic connotations which such steretypes suggest. By the same token, they also, of course, confirm their true identity — by the early twentieth century, wellerisms of this kind are no longer in use, and language (‘Shermans’, ‘leedle’, as well as v/w ) swiftly gives the game away. As the wounded soldier (who recounts this history) comments in another manifestation of laconic trench humour — and marked understatement, ‘the Germans wilted’.
Other aspects of double meaning are, however, at work too in what is, in effect, a highly nuanced use of language within the reporting of war. Wellerisms, for example, had come to be associated not with just the spoken form of Sam Weller’s speech (and his enunciation of vos (was) and ven (when)), but instead, as the OED confirms, primarily conveyed the idea of ludicrous comparison, in what was, in fact, another marked characteristic of Sam Weller’s speech**. Here, as the event proved, the comparison was ludicrous indeed. German infelicities in speaking English provoke — at least with hindsight — comedy rather than fear. The serious threat is, quite literally, removed. The Trojan horse fails, and the enemy is swiftly despatched. As in more recent events, humour proves an interesting weapon, delegitimizing ideas of power through particular tactics of representation.
While no new words are involved here, the article remains therefore of marked interest in the archive because of its reflexive play with words, as well as its consonance with a wider set of tropes (German dishonesty and cowardice, patriotic British defence) which appear in a wide range of other contexts across the years of war. It is, of course, not a direct transcription, nor — by the same token, can it be assumed to be mimetic. But it offers acts of representation in which language use is critical, in ways which effectively divide ‘them’ and ‘us’.
**See “Wellerism, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 20, 2015. It is defined as:’An expression or form of speech used by or characteristic of the Dickens character Sam Weller or his father, Tony; (usually) spec. a kind of a proverbial expression in which a statement, such as a familiar saying or proverb, is given a humorous or ironic twist by being incongruously or punningly attributed to a particular speaker, typically in a specific situation’. A typical example is given from 1839 Boston Morning Post 9 Jan. 2/2Wellerisms.—‘It does one’s heart good to look at you,’ as the fox said to the chickens, when he found he couldn’t get over the barn-yard wall, to eat them’.
Words, as the Scotsman explored in September 1914, played a role which, in a range of ways, often moved outside the merely representative. As other posts on this site have explored, language in WWI can, of course, easily reveal changes in material culture or the gradual extension (or restriction) of meaning in response to particular events. Yet, as the Scotsman stressed, words, not least by strategic acts of renaming, could also be used to embody a stance of defiance and undaunted resistance, of opposition and deflected power. The range of familiar epithets which the German howitzer shells were to acquire across WWI offered an eloquent example. Coined in the trenches and widely seen as representative of the ‘slanguage’ which drew comment across the war years, the names and meanings used in this respect would, at least verbally, deliiberately undercut the power and intimidating effects of the missiles launched against the Allied lines. As the Scotsman explained, for example, here just a few weeks into the war:
the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell filled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke (‘The German “Jack Johnsons”’, Scotsman 25 Sept 1914)
This passage contains a number of elements which were already highly resonant of time and place. Both crater and detonate, as Andrew Clark commented, drew on meanings which, if familiar across the autumn of 1914, had by no means been so before. A crater was an ‘excavation or cavity formed by the explosion of a mine; the funnel’ as the contemporary OED (in a section published in 1893) had explained, providing evidence from the Penny Cyclopaedia in 1839 (‘The dimensions of the crater or funnel formed by the explosion depend on the amount of the charge’; ‘The ratio between the diameter of the crater and the length of the line of least resistance’).** Yet, as in the extract from the Scotsman above, crater in WW1 would primarily signify the immense holes which shells made as they exploded. Meaning had moved on; encountering a convalescent sergeant on a train coming from Oxford in November 1914, Clark had been reliably informed that the larger shells created craters large enough to swallow a small cottage. The OED definition could seem particularly inadequate. Detonate, as the Words in War-Time archive also confirms, presented other departures. In the OED as it then existed, detonate was a transitive verb meaning ‘To cause to explode with sudden loud report, in the act of chemical decomposition or combination’. This could seem equally out of place. ‘On Tuesday the enemy’s guns were active in the afternoon. It is believed that the bombardment was due to anger because two of our howitzer shells had detonated right in the enemy’s trenches, which was full of men’, as the Scotsman noted on Monday 12th October 1914. Surely detonate now meant ‘to explode’, Andrew Clark suggested alongside the range of extracts which he gathered up as relevant evidence of change.
Most significant, however, as the Scotsman article continued, was the disjunction which, in terms of language, came to be apparent between the ‘terrific violence’ of the howitzer shells – and the various verbal strategies which soldiers deployed in order to refer to them. They are, as it noted:
irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.
Words, the Scotsman argued, could in such ways be seen as reflective of the wider psychology of war. Irreverence – and the deliberate mismatch of form and thing – could be precisely the point. As in the reassignment of howitzer shells to the diction of coal-boxes, a deliberate reductiveness (and diminution) was often at work. As the OED explained, a coal-box had hitherto been part of domestic diction, being used, as in Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, to refer to a receptacle for coal as used within the home: ‘Leave a Payl of dirty Water, a Coal-box…and such other unsightly Things’, Swift had written in 1745. Relocated to WW1, the coal-boxes which assailed the Allies were deemed equally ‘unsightly’, not least in terms of their ‘greasy black smoke’ which shells of this kind emit upon impact. As another extract in the Words in War-Time archive confirms:
These German shells are 90lbs., and on account of their dense black smoke they have been christened “Coal Boxes.” Everyone says, “Mind the coal-box.” They do dreadful damage’’ (Evening News, 9 October 1914)
Such uses relied, in effect, on a form of metaphorical transfer; the soot emitted by domestic coal-boxes when the latter were placed roughly upon the ground is made comically analogous to the shells and their intentionally devastating effects. As in other aspects of trench slang, appellations of this kind are deliberately transgressive — confirming, too, a refusal to submit (quite literally) to German terms. Jack Johnsons were similar. As the Evening News explained in January 1915, they denoted, in essence, larger types of the same weapon (‘The shells of the 8.27 in. and 11.2 in. howitzers are indiscriminately termed “Jack Johnsons,” “Black Marias,” and “Portmanteaux”’). In this instance, however, renaming drew on the American boxer who was the world heavyweight champion in 1914 – and whose punch was legendary. Here, too, however, visual analogy played a part; Johnson’s nickname was ‘The Big Smoke’ (the fact that Johnson was black was, as the Daily Express explained in a later extract in the archive, not entirely immaterial). As Adrian Gregory explains in a comment below, the fact that Johnson was scheduled in 1914 to fight a French opponent had an obvious pertinence too.
As a number of news articles note, however, the real significance of verbal play of this kind lay in its evocative symbiosis of word, meaning, and attitude. As the Evening News commented, for example, while Kaiser Wilhelm II had characterised the British Expeditionary Force as a ‘contemptible little army’, contempt could easily be reappropriated — and redirected:
The strong point of our “contemptible little Army” has all along been its refusal to be terrified either by the weight of numbers or the use of the most terrible engines of destruction that have ever been employed in warfare. The shells of the new large calibre Krupp howitzer were to strike terror into the hearts of the “treacherous” British. Instead the “Jack Johnsons” of the Fatherland have been treated by our troops with regrettable levity, and though they have done their work effectively enough in a material sense, our moral has remained unaffected (Evening News Thurs 1 October 1914)
Here, if the ‘regrettable levity’ of the Allies receives comment, it is, of course, entirely ironic. Instead levity is commended while the resulting expressions symbolise the undaunted spirit with which conflict was faced. Words – and the power to name – can, the Evening News argued, importantly deflect and destabilize the kind of terror which had been intended. Moral (MnE morale) remained intact.
**crater. A definition ‘the cavity formed by the explosion of a shell’ was added in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary which was published in 1933. It tracked usage back to 1855 and the conflict of the Sebastopol campaign, as well as adding later examples from WWI, dating from December 1914 onwards. Evidence from October 1914 was added later, though Clark’s evidence on crater from September 1914 still remains of interest. See “crater, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 12 January 2015.