“Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4

A British "Archie" in action
Ein britisches Flugabwehrgeschütz in Aktion, 1917. A British “Archie” anti aircraft gun in action, 1917.

George Robey’s rendition of the music-hall song ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ perhaps provides  an unlikely accompaniment to the First World War. It deals with the comic archetypes of domestic – and specifically marital – strife. The unfortunate Archibald is subject to continual reproof and correction from the moment he ties the knot. Denied a honeymoon, the opportunity to play cricket, or a piece of roast chicken, Archibald’s endeavours are, in each case, firmly curtailed by the refrain ‘Archibald, certainly not’. Even outside the domestic sphere, Archibald is apparently doomed to identical processes of castigation and control:

I once strolled through a field, and there a mad bull came across.
It gamboll’d with me playfully and quickly won the toss!
Of course I sued the owner, and the day the case was fought,
The judge exclaimed when I said, “Sir, let’s have the bull in court!”

“Archibald, certainly not!
Just show what other evidence you’ve got!”
But he cried when I said, “Please forgo it…
Because I must stand up to show it.
“Archibald-certainly not”

The recurrent patterning by which Archibald’s every endeavour is rebutted and repulsed, was, however, to effect an interesting transfer into the diction of the war. As an article in the Evening News in January 1915 indicates, it was by this point seen as yet another component in the lexical ingenuity of war-time English. While the article draws attention in general terms to ‘the ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him’, Archibald  features as an item of specific interest. It designates ‘for some unknown reason’ the  ‘anti-aircraft gun’, the writer explains.  As in so many other cases, the language of Front and Home Front had apparently diverged. Here, a proper name had inexplicably been used to ‘christen’  an inanimate object. Both, admittedly, began with the same letter but at least in this article the transfer is seen as entirely opaque.

Across the Words in War-Time archive, however, the prevalence of this usage is clear. As a further quotation from December 1914 confirms, for instance, attributions of this kind were already part of common parlance at the Front. ‘High-angle guns firing shrapnel’ are ‘commonly known as “Archibalds”’, the Daily Express explains for the benefit of its own readers. Used with reference to the enemy, Archibald offered a ready personification of agency and attack: Continue reading

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