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