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

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Copyright. Imperial war Museum, 1916. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/29729

‘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

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