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 Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

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

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Alien enemies: the politics of being frightful

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 meanThe 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