‘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

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.***

Notes

**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.