Rethinking the birth of an expression. Keeping calm and “carrying on” in World War One:

keep calm and carry on
Poster image via Wikimedia Commons

The injunction to Keep Calm and Carry on, with or without various mutations, has, in recent years, become ubiquitous. ‘One of the most recognisable slogans in British history’, as Henry Irving notes, it can, in modern English, be found inscribed on anything from mugs and cards to clothing or bags.

Its origins as slogan have been carefully located in WWII, being credited to the shadow Ministry of Information.  As Simon Eliot explains, almost three million copies of a MOI poster urging the populace to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had been distributed across the British Isles by the early autumn of 1939.  It was, nevertheless, to be a notably short-lived campaign.  A crisis of confidence– founded in concerns that it might seem patronizing or even annoying – led to its swift demise. Originally intended to strengthen the war-time spirit, and to reassure as a new war began, the posters were – with a few exceptions – pulped in 1940.

Slogans, however, also have beginnings and “carrying on” – as a specific injunction to maintain war-time resilience, and with particular reference to qualities of fortitude on the Home Front – already had a long (if forgotten) history. Devising their poster in 1939, the shadow MOI drew, in fact, not on a blank slate of language but made use of what was already an established collocation of war-time use.  Based in WW1 rather than WWII, the determination to “carry on”, had already featured prominently in a wide range of private and public discourses.

As war began in August 1914, uses of carry (and carry on) were, as we might expect, plentiful. Carry on had already been given three senses by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755; the recent entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in a section published in 1888) had expanded this to five. Discussion of the need to carry on the war, to carry on work, or to carry on the fight or struggle are easily found.  Carrying on is made a serious business often collocating with words of industry and labour. As in the example below, uses of this kind required a direct or indirect object.

‘many, too, must stay at home to carry on the daily business of life, to provide the means of feeding and paying the Navy and the Army, and even to manufacture the necessary instruments of warfare’ (The Times December 5th 1914)

Particularly prominent, however, are uses of carry on as it came to be used in another early motif of WW1 – here in the expressed determination to carry on business as usual, an idiomatic expression often credited to Winston Churchill though  it was, in fact, used by Lloyd George as early as August 4th.

Importantly, this construction signalled much more than a commitment to maintain the national economy, being deeply imbued with the morale-boosting resolve to maintain quintessentially British ways of life on the Home Front, irrespective of what the war might bring. Business as usual already had its own linguistic history (being in use in the 18th century). Coupled with carry on, however, it came to express a war-time mind-set, a state of ideological resistance – founded in a determination not to give in, and to continue unaffected, however bad things might become.

Are you ready and fit to tackle your everyday duties and to carry on “Business as usual”

as an advertisement for Iron Jelloids – identified as an ‘invigorating tonic – hence demanded in September 1914. Churchill, using this phrase in November 1914, was – to use a modern idiom – merely making use of a current meme. As in the Jelloids advertisement, business – and the duty to carry on is embedded in ‘everyday duties’, whatever they might be. By implication, anyone and everyone could participate in this national endeavour, and in the spirit of war-time resistence.

In England in this national crisis we [have] tried to carry on business as usual, we hoped with confidence for victory as usual, and we were determined to maintain justice as usual

As language history proves, business as usual would, in fact, assume a life of its own, often being used without the accompanying verb. Importantly, the same is also true of carry on in war-time usage. An interesting example of this separation appears in the Times in July 1915:

No more stern test of any man’s mettle could be imagined than he should have to “carry on” when death is doubly present in the mines below the water and the shells bursting above’…Those fishermen, too, who have continued to follow their calling have found that “business as usual” has not been without its added risks.

Carrying on here links both to the role that has to be performed, but also to the appropriate mind-set of performance – the resolve, courage, dedication, which ‘business as usual’ (which here includes mine-sweeping) might require.

Be British! Carry on!

likewise appears in a 1914 advert for Napier Motor Business vehicles, in an even closer correlate for the connotative values which carrying on came to acquire.  ‘The famous Acton Works … are carrying on business as usual’, as Napier went on to assure its customers:

‘whatever happens, we feel we must carry on and do what we are called upon for’

an article in the Times stated to similar effect in November 1914. In examples of this kind, carrying on exists in its own right, yet inferentially continues the sense of patriotic resolve of business as usual — not least in the expressed determination to be uncowed by circumstances, whatever these might prove to be.

While earlier uses of carry on tended to require a direct or indirect object (one carries on with something, one carries on the struggle, in which continuance of various kinds is the central issue at stake), these uses of carry on are therefore  intriguingly different. Often framed by inverted commas, these  usefully act as visual reminders or cues for the semantic nuances involved in carrying on in this particular sense. Individual examples thereby often move beyond a sense of simple continuity (i.e. merely carrying on in ways which correspond to previous states), but instead engage with a wider interpretative framework — based in the implied willingness to try and keep going, to shoulder the new burdens, and to make the best of things:

BEHIND THE GUNS. war has released the most terrible engines of destruction, the giant guns that have been so long preparing for The Day; yet the human element remains supreme. It is the man behind the gun who counts. And to all who “carry on” at home lies the duty of keeping fit — we are all “behind the guns.” Get the Kruschen habit, the daily discipline of half a teaspoonful of Kruschen Salts in a tumbler of hot water before breakfast ….(advertisement, Kruschen Salts, 1916)

As here, advertising could – as so often in WW1 – prove highly adept at appropriating war-time diction for its own ends.  ‘We’, collectively, are encouraged to carry on’, whatever this might involve – since in a nation at war, not least in one which, by 1916, involved both combatants and non-combatants as objects as attack, all are – literally or metaphorically, ‘behind the guns’. Endurance — on a range of levels — was vital.

The salience of non-combatants, and especially women in the activity of carrying on is, in this respect, often brought to the fore in contemporary discussions. An article in March 1915 in the Evening News, for instance, addressed the ‘Mobilisation of the Women’ as a striking new departure of war:

I have seen little more than the headlines in newspapers which announce “Mobilization of the Women”. I suppose it means that, at the last pinch, women must prepare to “carry on” while the men have gone to the wars in Flanders and elsewhere.

You will ask what they are doing now if they are not “carrying on.” For the children still have their breakfasts and their marching orders for school, the mysterious world of the household goes forward, the daily adventure of shopping, the daily achievement of the dinner-table. Yet the Board of Trade must require more, or it would have sent out no circular. …The Amazons are no extinct tribe.

Here, if certain domestic things still happen in the established patterns of the past (and therefore, by definition, “carry on” or continue in the older senses of the verb), what is now additionally to be carried on is of a very different order. The resolve and determination that women must now exhibit – in departing from their accustomed roles – is key, here invoking a state of patriotic engagement  and a willingness ‘to do their bit’ in compensating for the loss of male labour.

A CALL TO WOMEN …”The lesson we want to teach our women,” said Miss Pott, “is that they have not done all that is necessary when they have let their men go to the war. If they would only do the odd jobs that come along — hoeing turnips, for example — they would be helping to “carry on”. (The Times, 9 March 1916)

Carrying on can mean committing – with proper patriotic resolve and endurance – to the wider life of the nation, in ways which were –for many women– unprecedented in earlier years. Again, however, it is the attitudinal response which is made most significant, over and above the ways in which this might – in individual circumstances – now be realised. More is at stake than merely carrying on the hoeing.

Carrying on could, for the duration, therefore become a way of life, offering a range of well-established precedents for ‘Keep Calm and carry on’. As in the advertisement below, here from January 1918, carrying on was made into an effective linguistic symbol of resilience. Two short words could, with striking economy, be made to evoke the war-time spirit, with its complex layers of commitment and resolve, patriotism and endurance, as well as a refusal to give in, especially on the Home Front.War Workers carry on advert OATINE face cream in Punch January 23rd 1918 page viii (002)

not blighty

Nominative determinism: Boche, bosh, and other language games in WW1.


Battering the Boche. Royal Library of Belgium.

‘BOCHE, BOSCH, AND BOSH’ states an arresting headline taken from the Echo in 1915. Preserved in the Words in War-Time archive, the article which followed explored the use, and meaning, of another new word of war. First recorded in 1914, Boche – variably spelled as Bosche — formed part of what, at least ‘for the duration’, would prove a markedly over-crowded space. Alongside Fritz and Hun, Uhlan and Willie (‘soldier of Wilhelm’, as the archive explains), uses of Boche presented yet another way of writing the enemy. Replete with negative connotations (and able to be visually enhanced by the Germanised spelling with -sch), Boche came to designate, as in the examples below, someone, and esp. a soldier, of German ethnicity. It could be either singular or plural, noun or adjective, inflected or uninflected.

 ‘men huddled below the parapets, gazing through their periscopes, or sniping at invisible Boches’ (Daily Express / news / 1915-02-01 )

‘doing the “outside edge” round Jack Johnson holes, and Boches a mile or two ahead or in the rear’   (advertisement, Scotsman, November 1916)

Originally deriving from French (as a later entry in the OED would confirm), boche has been linked to Fr. boche ‘scoundrel’, perhaps drawing too on tête de boche, a stubborn, obtuse unintelligent person (a form already used in French before the war as a derogatory term  for a German). Other possible sources link it to caboche (‘blockhead’)  — of which boche  might be a shortened form — or to alboche (a form which appears early in the archive, and which represents a conflated form of Allemand and Boche, complete with further derogatory overtones). Alboche was ‘French Military slang’, a 1914 note in the archive confirms. If alboche was relatively resticted in use, Boche would, in contrast, prove both popular and pervasive.

Its range of uses can therefore illustrate one strand in the war-term assimilation of this form. More striking, however, as the Echo also commented, was the remarkable similarity, at least in auditory terms, that anglicised Boche and bosh had come to assume. This  offered the potential for a richly punning identity.

‘By one of the miraculous freaks of language the word conveys the essential idea to almost all the nations engaged in the war’,

Continue reading

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

The fashion for war: women and language 1914-1915

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 10122)

‘There are certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration than that of our speech’. This quotation from John Denham was  used by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century as he gathered up his own collection of words for the Dictionary.  Nevertheless, while written long before WWI, Denham;’s words remain interestingly resonant for the Words in War-Time archive in 1914-15. As Andrew Clark noted in the archive, ‘mode’ as seen terms of war-time fashion could display a striking consonance with war itself. Language moreover acted as a ready conduit for such ideas, revealing the new – and highly fashionable — prominence of items such as cartridge buttons or colours such as Joffre blue for the new season.

As Clark explored, diction of this kind easily testified to the popularity of war, offering other forms of allegiance and patriotic display.  Patriotism, as the archive confirms, was particularly productive in late 1914-early 1915. Continue reading

Branded words: On not being German

Advertising, and the constructed nature of brand-names, was a topic to which Clark frequently returned in documenting ‘Words in War-Time’.  Even before war broke out, Clark had started to collect relevant examples, arguing that – for the linguistic and historian alike – these could be seen as a rich (and often neglected) resource of information about the embedding of language in culture and society. If the Oxford English Dictionary maintained a steadfast opposition to evidence of this kind (disallowing proper names as part of the legitimate territory of lexicography and the history of words), Clark again deliberately moved in a different direction. The notebooks gave him useful autonomy to explore language and meaning, and its responsiveness to on-going history, as he wished.

As previous posts have explored, the specific circumstances of war often rendered language a highly effective means by which patriotism or other issues of national allegiance could be claimed – or rejected. Consideration of form and, in particular, of word-forms which – rightly or wrongly – connoted German identity, could attract particular attention in this respect. The popular press, for example, repeatedly appropriated German patterns of spelling, placing German kultur against English culture in ways which intentionally rendered the former a by-word for savagery and barbarity. If kultur and culture derive from the same root, being, in reality, shared and cognate forms,** they could nevertheless be rendered antonyms in popular discourse — see e.g. the heading ‘More “Kultur”’, which in the Daily Express on 21 September 1914, accompanying an article (and an all too telling image) about the devastation of Rheims Cathedral.

The currency of other lexemes such as Teutonised – or non-Teutonic – both of which Clark records in his notebooks from September 1914 – easily reveals the identity politics at stake. Being Teutonised (a form still unrecorded in the OED) was, as another article in the Daily Express confirmed, seen as highly negative – suggesteing unwarranted alignment with the enemy in ways which are firmly delegitimised. Being, or being seen as, germanophile (here in another form which gained newly negative connotations — Clark records its use from September 11 1914) was, in similar ways, by no means seen as desirable.

An extensive anti-German lexis could, in such ways, became another aspect of the war of words. Notions of being pro-German, or Hun-like (both of which Clark also documents from September 1914) would all be used to mobilise highly negative feeling. The Hunite – recorded in the Daily Express on 19th September (and absent, then and now, from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  emerges, for example, as a highly effective way of labelling, and stigmatizing, the presence of unwarranted German sympathies, not least as indicated by a less than whole-hearted supported for the war effort or, still worse, by qualms about war per se. ‘Chiding the Hunites’, the heading of the article states. As the OED records, the suffix –ite was far from neutral: forms in which –ite appear, it states, ‘have a tendency to be depreciatory, being mostly given by opponents, and seldom acknowledged by those to whom they are applied’. To use language reflective of what the Express termed ‘odious Germanic taint’ could be seen as highly problematic – prompting, as we have seen, a range of acts of renaming and redefinition.

One of Clark’s particularly interesting examples in this context was the advertising campaign taken out in the autumn of 1914 by Krieger, the brand name of what was given as ‘the electric carriage syndicate’. Here, as the company realised, form and meaning could intersect in newly problematic ways. Krieger was, in some ways, ahead of its time – its electric vehicles offer early prototypes of a technology being explored and extended today. Clark noted the collocation electric carriage (also absent from the OED) as a combination of marked interest; if ‘carriages’ looked back to the past, ‘electric’ offered a new sense of modernity (as well as extending early designations of the car as ‘horseless carriage’). Nevertheless, as war began, the suspicion that, for Krieger, its name (and hence its products)—might also be seen as overly ‘Teutonised’ (and, indeed, ‘Germanophile’) was a source of self-evident concern. Krieg, as the German word for ‘war’, seemed less than ideal as a defining element in the name by which the product was popularly known, not least given the prevalence of similar Germanic forms – such as kriegspiel or kriegsmetall — in other contemporary (and highly negative) news accounts.

For Krieger, a range of advertisements therefore swiftly appeared, proclaiming British national identity and unimpeachable patriotic credentials.

‘The above company has been, from its formation in April 1903, a British Company’,

as readers were, for example, reminded. More to the point, perception of its association with German krieg is depicted as misguided in the extreme. Visual similarity was, it stressed, a false friend indeed; only in error, we are informed, could the brand names be read as krieg plus er, with its disturbing associations of militarism and aggression. Form — in both speech and writing – is strategically repositioned, while recent history clearly demanded a set of history lessons of its own. In the advertising which appears in autumn 1914, the name loses its hard Germanic /g/ and gains a small but suggestive é acute.

Etymology, in turn, is made to validate not the all too negative German krieg but instead an identity in French by which Krieger derives not form Krieg plus er, but from a ‘Monsieur Kriéger’, a Frenchman, resident in Paris, where

‘the original Kriéger Company was formed, and from whom the London Krieger company purchased its patents’.

Form was renegotiated once more – Kriéger, once French, had become British by losing its distinctive é, as well as gaining a different pronunciation. Commercial and linguistic assimilation had worked together. With the advent of war, the accent was, however, to be put on success in quite literal ways. Advertising campaigns carefully stress the allegiance which the small but significant é confirms. Krieger was carefully distanced while Kriéger could, as potential purchasers were reassured, be bought without qualms. French diacritics could get a new lease of life in English. Language, yet again, could be used with tactical intent — here, in what one might nevertheless see, as a strategic exercise in damange limitation.***


**Culture derives, as OED confirms, from Latin cultūra, and was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French after the Normal Conquest. Originally used to refer to literal cultivation of the land, German ideas of culture (signifying the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group) became prominent in English after the eighteenth century. See culture (n.), OED Online.

*** Modern parallels can be found in the suddenly negative connotations of ‘Isis’ as a company name, as reported in the press in November 2014. This, too, can prompt issues of identity and subsequent rebranding.

Being All-British: language and the politics of advertising in WW1

For Clark, advertising — even before war began – had seemed to offer fertile territory for anyone who might be minded to investigate the interactions of language and society. Brand names and the language of persuasion easily exploited other aspects of language and identity, playing on common anxieties and aspirations. As Clark noted, adverts played with meaning in markedly creative ways. War, however, quickly brought other new elements into play, mobilising particular patterns of meaning and connotation to good effect. Nationhood, patriotism, and purchasing could dovetail with precision.
Being All-British, for instance, emerged as a newly prominent locution. This was, and remains, a form unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its appearance as a new and hyphenated compound from the first days of WWI nevertheless acted, as a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks indicate, as a guarantee of quality which was closely aligned with new issues of identity — of both product and purchaser —  in a time of war. As soon as Germany invaded Belgium, commodities on the Home Front, as Clark observed, could be made symbolic of conflict in a wider sense. Buying products manufactured in Germany was popularly conceived as a form of patriotic betrayal, demonstrating a now untenable support for the enemy as well as evoking what was often referred to as ‘Teutonic taint’. Meaning, and use, of relevant words could shift dramatically, as in the ‘“Made-in-Germany” riot ‘which the Daily Express reported on September 26th 1914:

“The appearance of a van laden with cases conspicuously marked “Made in Germany.” created a lively scene yesterday outside the premises of a toy dealer in High Holborn…Soon an angry crowd of nearly a thousand had gathered’

One of the offending cases was set on fire, while the toyshop (outside which the van had parked), denied all knowledge of the consignment. The police were called to sort out the fracas which ensued. For Clark, this provided a new compound adjective, with markedly negative connotations – being ‘Made-in-Germany’ as applied adjective was self-evidently not being read by the assembled crowd as a signifier of quality (as it might have been before the all too partisan politics of war intervened). Instead, as the ensuing ‘riot’ confirmed, it was a form which, displayed on a set of packing cases, was able to evoke widespread opposition and distrust.
In contradistinction, as Clark observed, diction which proclaimed the absence of ‘Teutonic taint’ was deployed as an effective weapon in what seem a widespread war of commodities on the Home Front itself. Advertising for Lyons Tea in September 1914, for instance, made insistent use of this compound as it sought to gain tactical advantage over possible competitors: Lyons, as readers were told, represented an: All-British Company with All-British Directors’, as well as ‘14,000 All-British Shareholders’, and a product which was delivered to ‘160,000 All-British Shopkeepers selling Lyons tea’. All-British likewise heads an advert for Icilma cream (‘made in England by a British Company employing only British workpeople’). This statement was guarded by the visual image of two soldiers in profile, defending product and purchaser alike from any untoward – and unpatriotic — associations. All acted as an intensifer in both quantitiave adn qualitative ways.
Non-native names – like, say, the modern use of French — had, at least in pre-war days, intentionally conveyed the exotic and sophisticated. Yet, in terms of language and the play of connotation, this could now misfire; the non-native might easily prove a liability. Advertisements for Icilma in September 1914 as a a result carefully reminded readers of the links to Arabic rather than German for the name under which it traded: ‘The word “Icilma” is a trade mark, composed of Arabic words, meaning “Flows the water”, as it explained, with reference to “the beautifying Icilma Natural Water which is contained in this famous toilet preparation’ . ‘No other toilet cream contains this wonderful Natural Water’, it stressed. Its purity was thereby guaranteed in more ways than one.
The advertising of Hovis bread on September 12th 1914 conversely suggested an act of patriotic defamation in this respect. War could, it seemed, be fought on many levels, with diverse forms of attack and counter-attack.As the advertisement declared:

‘It having come to our knowledge that a rumour has been spread abroad that this Company is of German origin, we desire to state that this Company is and always has been BRITISH in its composition, is under BRITISH control and employs only BRITISH LABOUR.

It offered a reward of one hundred pounds ‘to anyone who can supply the Company with information leading to a conviction of the person or persons originating the false report’.  Clark’s intuitions on the value of advertising– and its language — would, as his later notebooks confirm, prove highly accurate. Across 1914-18, war – in word and image — could exploited for commercial advantage in a range of sometimes surprising ways.

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).