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

notblighty
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 http://digital.nls.uk/first-world-war-official-photographs/pageturner.cfm?id=74548064

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

The silence of death: war in 1914

death
Casualties after a charge [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. The British Library. Copyright Public Domain marked
 

On the other side of recruiting was, of course, the action that had to be performed, and the realities of combat and war. The diction of war-reporting in the British press in this respect often evokes a sense of jolly camaraderie in these early weeks — the derring-do of ordinary men who are united as ‘pals’ and ‘chums’ in heroic ventures abroad, defending the innocent, and fighting for honour and justice, and, as in the Star on the 5th September 1914, never quailing even when placed before ‘bullets thick as bees’. This language is vivid and colloquial, often constructed in direct speech, as here in reporting another episode of conflict in the Daily Express in September 1914:

Who was the coolest man under fire? I am safe in giving the biscuit to young Tommy Brown, who lay in the trenches smoking a cigarette while he picked out the blue devils coming up to the attack. He had to throw his “butt” away in the end to engage a couple of Germans with his bayonet, but he came through’

Reading the popular press in his endeavour to document the words of war, Clark notes down locutions such as take the biscuit (not in the first edition of the OED as it then existed), and the commendatory sense of cool (dispassionate, controlled; unmoved by events). The Germans are blue devils (forming part of a wider trope in which war is often seen as hell); Continue reading