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

Watching language change in WW1: on being a dud


“He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;

And then, of course, they started with five-nines

Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud”.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Counter-Attack’ (first drafted in the summer of 1916) reveals a ready familiarity with the duds one might encounter at the Front. Here, if the ‘five-nines’ in line 2 of the extract above reference the German 5.9 inch artillery shells, their high success rate is emphasised too. In the attack Sassoon describes, duds – shells which fail to explode – are absent. ‘Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst’, as the poem continues.

National Library of the Netherlands – Koninklijke Bibliotheek: Soldier with a 16 inch German “dud” which fell in the Belgian lines. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

It is nevertheless worth remembering that speakers of English from before war would have struggled to comprehend the lines as thus composed. As the first edition of the OED records – here in a section published in 1897 — duds in English referred primarily to clothing or to things. One could wear duds, or possess them. In neither case, however, did they resemble elements of military hardware. ‘Girls knit away small fortunes … on little duds that do nobody any good’, as Harriet Beecher Stowe stated in her novel Little Foxes in 1866. ‘How precious are all the belongings of a first baby; how dear are the cradle, the lace-caps, the first coral, all the little duds which are made with such punctilious care and anxious efforts of nicest needlework’, we are told in Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857).

Andrew Clark’s work on the Words in War-Time archive draws early attention to the shift which a few months of war had brought in this respect. Reading the Daily Express on Wednesday 13th January 1915, he found an article headed ‘Jig-saw of mud’. The text took the form of another ‘Letter from the Front’ – identified as being from a sergeant to his wife, and offering an important sense of authentication for the experiences that are described. Language and its changes, as Clark stressed, can, of course, be authenticated in similar ways. Continue reading

Platoon: tracking lexical life beyond the Oxford English Dictionary

 ‘Whole platoons rushed to the rescue and emptied their magazines into them, and not a few were bayonetted’ ‘”Bravo !’, shouted my platoon commander as he watched the carnage through his field glasses’ Daily Express, 1914 1 Sept

Platoon was one of a number of words where, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, evidence and meaning already seemed to have moved beyond that which the Oxford English Dictionary supplied. Clark’s ‘Not in N.E.D.’ ** appears like a refrain through his early notebooks, set against words such as flag-wagging, an idiomatic locution which he found  in the Daily Express in August 1914. It meant,  Clark explained, ‘boasting of military and naval power of one’s country’, and was a word which was already seen as redolent of an excess of patriotic zeal. Terrace offered other problems. Declared obsolete in the OED, it seemed alive and well in the popular press.  Clark found it, for example,  in reading the pages of the Evening News on  8th September 1914,here in an article  describing French refugees in Britain:  ‘the refugees paces up and down, sat on the chairs and the deck seats, read French papers. The lawns were like the terrace of a fashionable French watering place in the height of the season’.  If terrace had been obsolete for the OED, it was perhaps re-introduced as a loanword, Clark hypothesised.

Platoon was similar. *‘N.E.D. says “obs”, but much in use in 1915’, Clark notes against the quotation from the Daily Express which appears at the top of this post.  OED entries typically offered a model of life-history or biography for each word. Platoon, the dictionary confirmed, had in this light begun to be used in English in the military senses in 1637, signifying A small body of foot-soldiers, detached from a larger body and operating as an organized unit’; it could also mean half a company, a squad, a tactical formation preserved in some armies for purposes of drill, etc.’.  Yet, while the life-history of platoon could, at least in other senses, be tracked in terms of its later use, its role in military diction was deemed to have come to an end in the mid-19th century. ‘it is Obsolete in the British army’, James Murray stated in his entry for the word, drawing on the apparently definitive information given by Stocqueler in his Military Encyclopaedia  of 1853. This was reproduced in the dictionary entry: ‘Platoon, a subdivision or small body of infantry. The word is obsolete, except in the term ‘manual and platoon exercise’’. Later evidence which Murray included in OED1 was, accordingly, both historical and linked to American rather than British use.

Written in 1907, platoon had  in fact formed a relatively recent entry within the still-evolving OED. Clark, just seven  years later, would, however, start  to document a very different history.  Platoon, as the evidence he assembled in his notebook lexicon proved,  had not died but instead, as the popular press attested,  it was indeed  ‘much in use’.  It was moreover used as noun and as adjective, as Clark’s evidence on platoon commander from the Daily Express in September 1914 had also indicated. Rendered alive in the evidence he had before him, yet dead in a national dictionary written on historical principles, the word, and its apparent anomalies, would clearly remain on Clark’s mind.

The OED, as in many other instances which Clark would go on to document during the war years, would in this respect by no means get the last word. One day in 1915 Clark found himself in conversation in Great Leighs with Major Joseph Caldwell, who had served with the London Scottish. Clark took the opportunity to elicit additional information on platoon  As Clark therefore records in a postscript which appears at the end of his first notebook, his quest was successful — enabling  him to fill in at least some of the gaps in the ‘biography’ of platoon. As Major Caldwell confirmed, as far as he could remember it had ‘dropped out of use about the end of Wellington’s campaigns’, but ‘reintroduced in the official orders for drill in 1914’.

In the later 1920s Clark’s material was passed to the OED. While little use was made of it as a whole, platoon was one of the criticisms the dictionary took on board as it prepared a corrected Supplement  for the first edition (which had finally been completed in 1928).  In the 1933 Supplement for the OED, the entry is revised. Platoon is no longer obsolete but, as we are now told,  it was in fact ‘recently revived in the British Army for a unit of infantry forming a fourth part of company and subdivided into four sections of about eight men each’.  Clark, Caldwell, — and the evidence of the Daily Express which prompted Clark’s observations — together with the later editors of the 1933 Supplement who read Clark’s work after his death, would in such ways all combine to produce a corrected version which remains the basis of the modern entry, and platoon’s on-going history as part of military diction. As the Supplement confirmed, Caldwell’s intuition about the change had indeed proved  correct, though the dictionary also managed to find an earlier  citation which located the shift in 1913 (1913   Army Order 323 16 Sept. §4   A company will be divided into four platoons, each commanded by a subaltern…Each platoon will be sub-divided under regulations to be issued later’). Stocqueler’s evidence has in the meantime disappeared as the entry was recently revised in full,  in June 2006, for OED Online (the on-going third edition of the OED).

Those interested in the language of the First World War –and the period in which platoon, as Clark confirms, rose to prominence in early twentieth-century use — might nevertheless find it surprising that the revised evidence in the OED moves from 1913 (and the quotation which is given above), to another  quotation from 1945

H. P. Samwell Infantry Officer with Eighth Army iv. 33   We had agreed that he should bring up Company H.Q. and the reserve platoon behind, while I led the forward platoons

The diction of the war years themselves is silenced, along with the popular sources Clark documents. Likewise, for platoon commander, it is the canonical Wilfrid Owen who is used as the basis of the OED evidence for this period

1917, W. Owen Let. 23 Nov. (1967) 509   Interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s

rather than Clark’s citation form the Daily Express some three years earlier. Clark’s evidence remains in the notebooks, along with his careful tracking of language on the move as witnessed in the reportage of the popular press.

[“platoon, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 4 August 2014].

** NED = New English Dictionary, the original title used for the OED in its 1st edition (1884-1928).