Banned words: ‘No-Treating’ and the language of war-time prohibition

Copyright. Imperial war Museum, 1916.

‘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


Souvenirs and relics: language, memory, and memorialisation in 1914-15.

A book of drawings and poems by soldiers in hospital in Neuilly between 1914-15. Contributed on behalf of Jacques HENNARD. Copyright: Creative Commons. See

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.

Souvenir would, in such ways, participate in the kind of creative redeployment evident in so many other words for weapons at this time (see e.g. woolly bear, Jack Johnson, coal box). Continue reading

‘Take me back to blighty’: the keywords of war in 1915.

Not Blighty. ‘On their Way to the Trenches through the Snow’. Image contributed by John Warwick Brooke, National Library of Scotland. Creative Commons license.See

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

Khaki in WW1 – much more than the sum of its colours

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

Austerity Britain in 1914-15: from war economy to radium bread.


Copyright. Imperial War Museum. The poster dates from 1917, and illustrates a later phase of what came to be known as voluntary food rationing.

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

The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums.

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled 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. On account of this they are 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.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading

WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

Men of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, 29th Division, before disembarking at W. And V. Beaches. May 5th-6th, 1915. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.

Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.

Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:

two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, Louvainingand looting on their way’.

“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.


Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.

What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading

Babies and “War-babies”: writing language in history in 1914-15

war baby.medium
A British soldier’s family of three. The Army Children Archive, Copyright: Creative Commons.

Baby can be a surprisingly prominent form in the discourse of early WWI. As earlier posts on this site have explored, it can, compounded with –killer and -killing, be made to act as a resonant image of German ‘frightfulness’ and its deployment against the innocent and vulnerable. ‘Scarborough’s Scorn for baby-killers’, as a headline in the Daily Express announced on December 22nd 1914; ‘The mere discussion in this country of the desirability of making air raid reprisals on German towns has been sufficient to inspire numerous earnest appeals to the Kaiser to put an end to the baby-killing activities of the Zeppelins’, the Express added in a similar mode in October 1915. Elsewhere in the Words in War-Time archive, baby can be used in depicting the surrogate family bonds of trench and army life. ‘It is odd that the N.E.D. [i.e. Oxford English Dictionary] has no heading or quotation for ‘baby’ in the sense of youngest member of a regiment’, a note in the archive states, providing plentiful evidence for contemporary usage in this respect.

Other familial imagery of babies in a time of war is perhaps more disturbing. The introduction of baby howitzers offered, for example, a form of familial narrative based on the deadly progeny (and fertility) of modern war. ‘New Terror for the Trenches’, as an article in the Evening News proclaimed in November 1914, While, as it commented, “the huge howitzers which were used in the reduction of the Belgian forts were, perhaps, the most surprising feature of the Teuton’s artillery equipment”, a new baby howitzer now promised to deliver twelve-inch shells from three inch guns. If with rather different resonances, the same diction could, of course, also be applied to British weapons. As in the extract below, this offers telling illustration of the shift of meaning which a change of orientation can bring:

The different types of our own ordnance also all have their designations. A certain heavy howitzer whose dull boom is easily distinguishable above the reports of any other piece is affectionately termed “Mother,” while another is, somewhat inappropriately called “Baby”. (Evening News,January 1915).

It is, however, human fertility, and the conflicted issue of the war baby, on which this post will focus. This, too, was to be a distinctive use of the early years of WW1, not least in the contrastive senses it came to acquire. War baby demonstrates a clear narrative of change in the first year of war. Continue reading

Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. Continue reading