Slang and World War One

With the war bringing together soldiers from different countries and social classes, Julian Walker examines how sharing slang helped soldiers to describe their experiences.
One effect of the increased interaction in the combat zones between men from different social classes and from different countries and regions during the First World War was the growth and movement of slang. The movement of slang expressions can be seen as both lateral – in terms of geographical influence – and vertical – between different social classes.

Terms from other languages

Given the number of British personnel stationed on French territory it is unsurprising that many French terms were picked up and adapted. The increased use of ‘souvenir’ in place of ‘keepsake’, and ‘morale’ in place of ‘moral’ can be dated to this period. Perhaps the term most widely-used by British soldiers was ‘narpoo’, used to mean ‘finished’, ‘lost’, ‘worthless’, ‘broken’, etc., deriving from the French il n’y a plus meaning ‘all gone’.

Terms were adopted and adapted from almost all languages that were in use in the combat zones. From Indian languages came ‘blighty’ (‘foreign’ in Hindi, thus applied to British soldiers, and thus signifying ‘Britain’), ‘khaki’ from an Urdu word for ‘dust’, as well as ‘cushy’, ‘chokey’, ‘dixie’ and ‘puttee’. From Russian came ‘spassiba’ (thanks), from Arabic came ‘buckshee’ (free), and from German achtung came ‘ack-dum’ (look out).

The mixing of men from different regions led to the wider use of terms that had previously been of limited local usage. Most noticeable of these is the Lancashire term ‘binge’, while ‘scrounge’ spread from being a primarily North-country word. ‘Clink’, originally a London word for prison, which had spread westwards, became widely taken up. A writer to The Times in January 1915 proposed that ‘the majority of colloquialisms used by soldiers have a Cockney origin’.

Australian slang was the most cynical and robust, with the terms ‘Anzac soup’ (shell crater with a corpse), ‘nail scissors’ (general’s cap insignia) and ‘flybog’ (jam) serving as indicators of the general lack of sentimentality.

Digger dialects: slang phrases used by Australian soldiers

Digger dialects: a collection of slang phrases used by Australian soldiers on active service

Dictionary compiled in 1919 of slang used by Australian troops. The book is called Digger Dialects after the colloquial name for Australian soldiers.

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Class

Class differences merged in the front line as morale and discipline, and the effectiveness of the troops as fighting units, depended on the relationship between the often public-school-educated junior officers and the middle- or working-class soldiers.

During the last year of the war there was a strong merging of slang across class barriers, particularly as the slang of the Other Ranks was taken up by junior officers and nursing staff. ‘The mixings of the classes is more potent than the mixing of the nations’, wrote Eric Partridge in Words, Words, Words (1933).

Helen Z Smith in her semi-autobiographical novel Not So Quiet … (1930) notes how her posh mother had picked up soldiers’ terms in leafy Wimbledon: ‘”What will Mrs Evans-Mawnington say … to my daughter taking a cushy job in England?” How well up in war-slang is Mother’. And in August 1918 The Manchester Guardian, reported on the presentation of the ‘Report on the Luxury Tax’ in Parliament, had included the expressions ‘a tidy bit of money in it’, ‘be a sport about it’, ‘all that twaddle’, ‘wangle it’, ‘wads of it’, and ‘we should hate not to have said it first’; this was ‘remarkable for the amount of slang – or at least that experimental and tentative English which borders on slang.’

Slang and avoidance

If one of the purposes of slang is disguise, this was also turned towards the speaker in slang terms for death, fear and being seriously wounded. By the use of such terms as ‘going west’, ‘getting it’, ‘copping it’, death could be referred to without being specifically made real through direct utterance; ‘getting the wind up’ and even ‘getting ‘em’ was understood as ‘being afraid’. A soldier who ‘stopped one’ or was ‘pipped’ would hope for a ‘blighty one’, an injury that would send him back home for a long convalescence; if self-inflicted it was known as a ‘blighty touch’.

Slang and belonging

Being conversant in slang was important for the soldier as a mark of belonging, and it proved a source of interest to those back home throughout the war. At the outbreak of war the army itself appointed Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton to be its official reporter, and it was apparently Swinton who introduced the term ‘Jack Johnson’ to the public in September 1914. But for the most part the press was forced to play catch-up, and while there was widespread reporting of slang from information gathered from troops on leave or convalescing, this could not indicate accurately how widespread or permanent these terms were. The Daily Mirror on 19 November 1914 wrote under the headline ‘Irrepressible Humour’, ‘Our troops, always cheerfully ready to treat the grimmest terrors light-heartedly, have coined another name for the German shells. This particular nickname is for the particular type of shell which makes a noise like a prolonged sigh. And so ‘Sighing Sarah’ is the new title’. But ‘Sighing Sarah’ was one of many epithets that quickly disappeared.

In some cases trench newspapers showed resentment at attempts by the home press to suggest slang terms for the troops at the front. On 12 April 1915 the 5th Gloucester Gazette newspaper ran a brief article stating ‘Our esteemed contemporary – The Cheltenham Chronicle – is a little disappointed with the title of our paper, and suggests the more ‘frightful’ title – e.g. “The Asphyxiator”. Surely the “Fifth GAZ-ette” is practically the same’. Behind the forgivable pun there is a clear implication about control.
A not dissimilar situation prevailed in France. In November 1914 the French songwriter Theodore Botrel introduced the term ‘Rosalie’ to describe a soldier’s bayonet in an erotically suggestive song. Though the term was picked up enthusiastically by civilians and other songwriters, it was not so popular amongst front-line troops, many of whom dismissed the term as a civilian intrusion into military popular culture.
  • Julian Walker
  • Julian Walker is an artist, writer and educator, who works with the Learning Department at the British Library. His research-based art and writing practice explores language, social history, the nature of objects and engagement with the past. He is co-author of Trench Talk: Words of the First World War (Stroud: Spellmount, 2012).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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