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

Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.

In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. Continue reading

Writing the refugee in WW1: language, identity, and use.

Tommies helping refugees to get into safety. Fotocollectie Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914-18. Frankrijk; Free Access – Rights Reserved. NL-HaNA_2.24.09_0_158-1211. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag

Refugee was to be another prominent word in the Words in War-Time archive. This had, in fact, been another relatively recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in 1905, the entry had tracked usage from 1685 to 1879. Yet a conspicuous absence attended refugee as used in the context of war. In the OED as it then existed, refugees sought a place of safety as a result of religious or political persecution; historical examples in the Dictionary made reference to the French Hugeunots who came to England in 1685 (after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and refugees who emerged after the ‘American revolutionary war’ and who ‘claimed British protection’. Various sub-senses documented refugee as used with reference to migrating birds, or to mean a fugitive, or to indicate someone who was simply running away from justice.

None of these senses seemed, however, to match the realities of language in the autumn of 1914. Instead, as the Words in War-Time archive demonstrates, it was war, and the wide-ranging geographical displacement it brought, which came to occupy the prime sense of refugee. Continue reading

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

A Non-Starter for Peace

A Non-Starter for Peace

A non-starter in modern use is, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, a thing or person which doesn’t start in a race or other kind of competition or test. It is a form which was taken originally from horse-racing, as in the very first use of this word in 1865 which the modern OED attests. If the other horses start, a non-starter is left far behind, never having left the point at which the race begins. This was, as history proves, a sense which was easily extended to a range of other domains. Nevertheless, the first edition of the OED, in progress as the First World War began, had been entirely silent on this word and its use. The relevant section, which covered words in Niche to Nywe, had been published in September 1907. While it provided an extensive section on words with non-, non-starter did not appear.

For Clark, tracking words in wartime, the use of non-starter in the Star on 5th September 1914 was therefore doubly arresting – first for the appearance of what seemed an unrecorded form, but secondly for the quite literally eye-catching statement in which it was deployed:

“A non-starter – The Kaiser, who was nominated only two months ago as the next recipient of the Nobel peace prize”.

This was, by early September 1914, a non-starter indeed. Kaiserism had by that point firmly come to suggest war not peace, being widely used alongside militarism and the politics of aggression. The Scotsman on September 3rd provides a good example; here on-going conflict is seen, from the Allies’ side, as a united effort in “fighting Kaiserism or militarism”. Still more prominent were images of the Kaiser as a ‘modern Attila and his army’, here in the Scotsman on Tuesday 8th September 1914. Similar was reference to the ‘New Attila’ in the Scotsman on 17th September 1914. This linked modern history to another unlikely contender for a peace prize. As the article stated:

‘Fourteen hundred years ago Attila and his Huns desolated Belgium, Holland, and Gaul, and then crossed the Alps to Northern Italy’.

As it added, the historical continuities seemed plain:

’now another Attila, at the head of a horde of barbarian Huns, and he and they are following in the footsteps of their ancient predecessors, burning classic cities and peaceful villages, and murdering indiscriminately men, women, and children, trampling the latter ruthlessly under their horses’ hoofs’.

The language was that of outrage and atrocity, and wilful depredation.

In terms of the history of non-starter and its representation, Clark’s evidence would, in this instance, be read by the OED in the scrutiny given to his notebooks around 1930. It was, however, rejected; n the 1933 Supplement to the OED, nouns such as non-flam (‘That is not inflammable’) are clearly inserted in preference. While a short entry does appear in the second edition of the OED in 1989, this contained no evidence in British English before1932, and even this referred to the more literal sense of the term — rather than the metaphorical one Clark had spotted.

Even in 2003, in a draft revision of the third edition of the Dictionary, the first metaphorical use of non-starter was traced only to 1934. Yet, rather than being a post-war locution, its use had, of course, been there all along in Clark’s carefully assembled lexicon of war-time English. Only in December 2009– and almost a century after Clark first recorded the form,– did Clark’s evidence, and the pithy citation on peace and the Kaiser in the context of war, finally make its way into the OED where it now appears in prominent first position under non-starter in the sense:  ‘A person or thing that is unlikely to succeed or be effective, or that is to be rejected or discounted at the outset; an impracticable idea’.

If the Kaiser hence proved a resounding non-starter for peace, the Star’s observation proved, at least in terms of language, a point of significant change, while also confirming Clark’s good eye for language on the move.

** See “non-starter”, OED Online.Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 20 September 2014.