Words, weapons, and WWI No.2: Woolly bears and whizz-bangs

By January 1915, Andrew Clark was by no means alone in his sense that language and war were intersecting in particularly fruitful ways. As an article in the Evening News, which Clark carefully extracted for the Words in War-Time archive, comments:

woolly bear
A woolly bear ? Explosion over a trench. Bibliothèque nationale de France @Public Domain marked.

The ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him is well known, and with the development of new weapons the number of nicknames in use has been extended until they form a language which is most bewildering to a stranger.

The article was headed ‘Tommy’s Slanguage’ in ways which drew attention to the lexical creativity which already seemed particularly in evidence on the Western Front. Slanguage, a blend or portmanteau of slang and language, was — perhaps predictably — another form which drew Clark’s own attention, not least since, as he quickly established, it represented yet another absence in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published three years earlier, in September 1911). Slanguage was thus doubly valuable for the Words in War-Time project – as a word about words it had an obvious thematic pertinence. Moreover, as in Clark’s early emphasis on the kind of word-pictures which would be vital in reporting and recording war, slanguage was described in terms which drew attention to the visual and picturesque quality of the coinages which had, within the first months of war, already come into being.
Some elements of this changing discourse of war have already been discussed in earlier posts. In terms of weapons, Jack Johnsons and coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Continue reading

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