A snippet on swearing

Or rather, a cutting on cursing: from the Ilford Saturday Post, 14 June 1919


A bit unfair to blame it all on army life; after all, Rupert Brooke had written in his 1914 poem Peace of the desire to

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move, 
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,

The ‘dirty songs’ were clearly there in civilian life, and no doubt much of the cursing was taken into the army by civilians.



In Sickness

In November 1954 the Radio Times gave a synopsis of The Goon Show, which introduced the term ‘the dreaded lurgi’ – I am starting with this, a) because I’ve got it, and b) because it is such a spoken term that the OED spelling is surprising. Urban Dictionary online likes ‘lurgy’, while according to Wikipedia Michael Quinion, in ‘The Dreaded Lurgi’ in World Wide Words, notes a folk-etymology from the dialectal ‘fever-lurgy’. The expected spelling, as I realized that I had never written this down, was ‘lurgey’.


With such comforting thoughts in mind, and body, we offer, to start the new year, two pages from René Delcourt’s 1917 publication Expressions d’Argot Allemand et Autrichien, dealing with sickness. Much of this requires school-level French and/or German for full enjoyment, and though discriminatory use of ‘Google translate’ can be some help, we would rather recommend Collins online – with the latter ‘Knochenschuster’ comes out as the plausible ‘bone-cobbler’, while Google translate gives ‘knuckle-shoemaker’.


Some of these are exuberantly cynical – the nurse as Pisspottschwenker (maybe ‘pisspotshaker’) or Hämorrhoidforscher (haemorrhoid-hunter), doctor as Pflasterschmierer (plaster-dauber). La Chaudepisse is gonorrhea, and morpions are pubic lice, or crabs; both of these are surprisingly missing from Leroy’s 1922 A Glossary of French Slang. There are the expected blamings for STDs – in the German view both the French and the Turks take responsibility for syphilis. The STD inspection corresponds to the English ‘Short Arm’ parade, as in Downing’s Digger DialectsSchwanz is slang for ‘penis’.


Also missing is anything corresponding to the most expected, and most disappointing, medical treatment offered to British soldiers – the ‘No. 9’,a purgative pill, which has survived in popular culture as the bingo-caller’s ‘Doctors Orders, Number 9’.


Delcourt states in the preface that he is addressing this book to soldiers (‘I don’t write for nuns’, he quotes), and sees it as a work in progress (forcément imparfaite, mais … perfectible), which explains the ‘die Parade blank’. At the end of the book are three forms which can be used to send in to the editor corrections or additions. The contributor is asked to send his or her name and address, the word or expression, its meaning, and an example of it in use. Were any contributions were sent in, and if so, what happened to them? According to the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France there was only the 1917 edition.


delcourt 59

delcourt 60








More Swearing, ‘frantically disgusting and terrible’

Continuing our presentation of different views of swearing at the Front, our last blog of 2018 offers an excerpt from A Private in the Guards, Stephen Graham’s 1919 memoir of his time in the Scots Guards from 1917 to 1918. Apparently the views of the pursuance of the war given in the book were critical enough to draw criticism from Winston Churchill in the Commons (Michael Hughes, Beyond Holy Russia, p5). An investigative writer and reporter, Graham was well known for his promulgation of the Tolstoyan view of pre-Revolutionary Russia as a land of devout peasantry and open spaces, a view of an agrarian paradise that he maintained despite the Revolution; his investigation of the legacy of slavery in the US, and his travel-writing about Mexico, post-war Europe, novels and fantasies, including an invasion fantasy on the bombing of London.


Perhaps his fascination with the idea of an innate spirituality of working people in Russia, an ideal that he believed British society could learn from, informs his views here on swearing. He is critical of ‘quiet youths’ being ‘corrupted and spoiled’ by their treatment in the army, and this view of young men being shocked and distressed by the hard swearing of their comrades is borne out elsewhere. But in blaming ‘the survivors of the pre-1914 army’, who have ‘made the tone’, Graham ignores the culture of swearing from the urban and rural environments that came with the enlisting and conscripted men who made up the bulk of those serving from late 1914. The separation of the ‘old peace-time professional army’, which ‘no one would naturally find fault with’, from the ‘whole nation’ is curious at best; it is tempting to see it as a shadow of the idealism of the inhabitants of ‘holy Russia’. There were many private soldiers who saw the value of the obscenity, even though they may have ‘detested’ it. The ‘purer atmosphere of  home or school or factory or office’ is too wide and cast to be taken seriously: which home, which school, which factory and which office?


Were Graham’s hopes that potential military service might ‘purify the system and make the army a decent continuation school’ realised? Probably not. How distressed he would have been to read T E Lawrence’s relating of the swearing that he saw during his post-war military service, which can be found in The Mint, and which was the subject of one of the most enjoyed papers at the LFWW conference  in September.






Best wishes for 2019 to all our readers.

Swearing and the sentimental

One of the greatest cultural differences between now and the period of the First World War is the acceptance, even embracing, of the sentimental; unfashionable and generally unstudied now, sentimental songs, sentimental postcards, sentimental rhymes reminded soldiers of home and loved ones. Several anecdotal references show how the sentimental was so often the mindset of choice, with songs such as Novello’s  Keep the Homes Fires Burning(first published as “‘Till the Boys Come Home” in October 1914), R S Mottram’s description of British soldiers doing little domestic services in a Flemish farmhouse, with ‘elaborate Sunday-school politeness, . . . tittering slightly at anything not quite nice, and singing, not so often the vulgar music-hall numbers, as the more sentimental “Christmas successes” from the pantomimes’, and the wide use of Bamforth’s song lyric postcards.


If there is a time of the year when we might allow the indulgence of the sentimental, it is probably Christmas. Here then to round off the year, is a little sentimental story by E G Miles, from Told in the Huts, the YMCA’s gift book published in 1916. It merits examination for a number of things, its portrayal of the YMCA hut environment, the two voices – no names – with their differences of class and outlook, but most of all for its setting out of the role of swearing. The soldier swears habitually; he swears at inanimate objects, the ‘bloomin’ motors’ (which seems at first odd, but is easily recognisable); he recognises swearing as an escape valve, but understands also that swearing directed at an individual crosses the line. Most notably he believes the parson, chaplain or padre, would be sacked if he swore, and also that the parson is not supposed to ‘understand it’, to make the links between expletive and expressed concept; but this begs the question of whether swearing in this kind of situation does actually make a link with bodily functions.


Beyond this the story makes it clear that in the space between home and no man’s land there were different kinds of spaces which were both reflected and defined by the presence, absence or degree of swearing. In highlighting this the story both indicates the emptiness of swearing, the value of swearing, and the impossibility of communicating the frontline experience in its own language to listeners at home. Though the title of the last sketch, ‘Tommy’s Home’, may not have intended this point to be clearly made, home for so many of them might, in terms of language, have been determined exactly as somewhere that swearing did not happen.


Told in the Huts 203Told in the Huts 204Told in the Huts 205Told in the Huts 206Told in the Huts 207Told in the Huts 208


For last-minute presents, take a look at the books page. We recommend them all.




Times of impending chaos

In times when it feels as though civilisation is slipping away and a right mess is just around the corner, it is perhaps helpful to see what impending disaster looked like in the early days of August 1914. These three telegrams show just how much of a world war the web of treaties created – not just the simple domino sequence of Austria v Serbia, which brings in Russia, which brings in France, which brings in Germany, which brings in Britain. These three telegrams received by Sir Edward Grey between 2.30 and 3.45 on the morning of 4th August involved discussions in at least eight languages. The last statement is intriguing – to ‘hold language to someone’, which the OED gives as ‘offer, proffer, present’, with the citation:

1796   Hist. in Ann. Reg. 77   The French..held out language promissory of equitable conditions.

All four OED citations give ‘hold out’, which is comfortable and current – X frequently holds out an offer to Y, and it suggests a pretty clear visual image. William Conyngham Greene’s ‘His Excellency … will hold similar language to them’ does not; it is more formal, slightly threatening perhaps.

Esmé Howard, as an influential British diplomat in Sweden, exerted his power to maintain neutrality in Sweden, which generally favoured the Central Powers. Here he is understandably nervous about any possible ambiguity in his reporting of the situation. Sir Charles Louis des Graz (1860-1940) was a British diplomat who served at Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey as Attaché  from 1885 and ended up as Minister to Serbia 1914-20. Presumably his telegram was not completely decipherable – no reason is given; it is worrying to imagine any kind of potential diplomatic misunderstanding caused by an indecipherable telegram at such a time.


Telegrams 3 August 1914




Frank Vizetelly, ‘The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms’ and ‘A Desk-book of Errors in English’

Frank Vizetelly (1864-1938) created a large body of work in the fields of etymology and lexicography, and maintained an attitude that might be best described as correctivist, not uncommon for the time – Wikipedia quotes his words “Slovenly speech is as clearly an indication of slovenly thought as profanity is of a degraded mind.” Equally a quick run through his titles stocked by the British Library show a mind attuned to the idea that language was a field of pitfalls to be avoided or corrected: A desk-book of twenty-five thousand words frequently mispronounced (1910), A Desk-book of Errors in English : Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation (1920), Words We Misspell In Business : Ten Thousand Terms, Showing Their Correct Forms and Divisions as Used in Printing and Writing, with Rules Governing the Orthography of English Words (1921). Vizetelly’s approach in A Desk-book of Errors in English is based on observation of language practice, including observation of what he sees as misdirected advice, for example the statement that ‘Some writers assert that desert is used only “of causes or persons but not of things.” This is erroneous. There is ample evidence of its correct application to things; as the soldier deserts his colours; the sailor deserts his ship.’ It could be argued here that ‘colours’ and ‘ship’ are causes as much as things, but no great matter. Or ‘Discriminate carefully between these terms [as far as, so far as]. As far as expresses distance; so far as expresses limitation, as of one’s knowledge. Therefore, “so far as I know” is preferable to “as far as I know”.’ Without laying out arguments for and against this approach, it is clear from the title that this was intended, and no doubt often very useful, as a referral guide for writers, rather than a slap-down for speech in practice.

FV title

Vizetelly’s subtitle for this book is ‘Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation’, implying that there is slang which does not have to be avoided. From the Introduction: ‘The one besetting sin of the English-speaking people is a tendency to use colloquial inelegancies, slang, and vulgarisms, and against these, as against the illiteracies of the street, it is our duty to guard, nowadays more so than at any other time, since what is learnt in the schoolroom is soon forgotten or displaced by association with illiterate playfellows, or by occasionally hearing words misused at home.’ But a few sentences later he writes, ‘The English language is the most flexible language in the world. Indeed, it is so flexible that some of its idioms are positively startling.’ How then might speakers, or in this case writers, of English steer a safe passage between flexible idioms and colloquial inelegancies? There are a few tell-tale signs that class is a determinant here: the expressions ‘sucker’, ‘no flies on him’, ‘go off at half-cock’, and others are described as ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction’, or even ‘to be avoided by all persons with pretentions to refined diction’, a phrase reminiscent of John Walker’s campaign that linked the alteration of speech patterns to social aspiration. Vizetelly lays out his position on slang in the penultimate paragraph of the Introduction: ‘Of slang no less eminent a writer of English than Richard Grant White has said, “Slang is a vocabulary of genuine words or unmeaning jargon, used always with an arbitrary and conventional signification,” and because “it is mostly coarse, low, and foolish,” certain slang terms and phrases have been included in the following pages, together with a few undesirable colloquialisms. These are included because the indiscriminate use of slang leads to slovenliness in speech. Not all slang is slovenly, incorrect, or vicious; much of it is virile, expressive, and picturesque. It is against the spread of that part of slang which is slovenly, incorrect, foolish, or vicious, that one should guard.’ Richard Grant White (1822-85) may command less reverence now than in his heyday, despite his robust facial hair, but the sense that there is ‘good slang’ and ‘bad slang’ persisted, certainly in the minds of some commentators, to 1914, when the army slang derived from colonial soldiering was meeting the urban slang of the new armies.

Walkers Dict title 1854


Some of the slang built up during the first three years of the war was presented to American soldiers through Lorenzo Smith’s Lingo of No Man’s Land (1918), a soldiers’ slang glossary, the need for which, in the writer’s words, ‘was impressed upon me while on recruiting duty for the British-Canadian Recruiting Mission’. This was thus a case of soldier slang being part of the attraction for potential recruits, in this case targeting British and Canadian men living in the US. Just as the unwary speaker needed to be educated away from slang, the recruit had to be educated towards it.


What then is the approach applied in Vizetelly’s The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms of 1918, in particular with regard to how this book might deal with slang expressions? None of the expressions listed in A Desk-book of Errors in English appears in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary, but he does provide space for soldier slang. The lengthy text on the title page, reminiscent of language manuals of the previous century, indicates that we are in a world of social education, not for class aspiration, but for the battlefield, the rest camp, map-reading, transport, and the management of horses; there is a refreshing absence of residual tourist phrasebook requests for baths, the repair of shoes, and directions to the zoo. He gives us expressions which might be expected to have designations as slang – ‘frigo’ (French slang for frozen meat) and Jack Johnson;

FV frigo

FV jack Johnson

Others are designated as slang: ‘funk-hole’, ‘cootie’ ‘(a louse: soldiers’ slang)’, ‘gippo’ ‘[soldiers’ slang], ‘“cushy” (Soldiers’ slang for comfortable)’, ‘“mack” (Mackintosh (soldiers’ slang), ‘grousing’ (Grumbling: discontent.: soldiers’ slang.). What is noticeable is the lack of consistency in these – italics, shapes of brackets, inverted commas, all seems quite arbitrary; ‘cushy’, ‘Wipers’ and ‘mack’, with double inverted commas, omit any reference to French, breaking with the rationale of the book entirely – the double inverted commas seem to indicate that this is an essential slang word needing definition rather than translation, but nowhere is this explained; and ‘grousing’ has only single inverted commas. It is as if slang by its very nature breaks up the rules.

FV funk-hole

FV cootie

FV gippo

FV cushy

FV mack


FV Wipers

FV grousing


Vizetelly, like all commentators on language, holds up a magnifying glass to the language and society of his time; in A Desk-book of Errors we see that the slang expressions ‘fakement’, ‘skidoo’ and ‘rubber-neck’ are current, and for Vizetelly undesirable, while ‘flub-dub’ and a ‘jollier’ are acceptable slang terms. He is non-committal with regard to the occasional expression: ‘twenty-three: A slang term used as the equivalent of “fade away” in theatrical and sporting circles: a recent expression the origin of which has been variously explained.’ And there is an interesting aspect of ‘push’: while in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘the Big Push’ is given as ‘The battle of the Somme: British soldiers’ name’, A Desk-book of Errors states thatIn English slang “push” is used for “crowd” probably from the proverbial restlessness and crushing in which English crowds usually indulge.’ The Soldiers’ Service Dictionary provides for the expectations of the American Expeditionary Force’s wide engagement in the campaign, from technical and officialese terms, such as ‘ecchymosis’, ‘empennage’ and ‘goniometer’, to ‘Boche’, ‘mate’ and ‘dugout’. Only one of the slang expressions appears in both texts: ‘half-cock’, though with startlingly different results. In The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘at half cock’ is translated as ‘au cran de repos’ (at rest), while A Desk-book of Errors gives ‘half-cock, to go off at: A colloquial phrase denoting “to speak before one is ready”’. Naturally, it is ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction.’


War Service Library








Picquet / Piquet / Picket

A question has arisen regarding the spelling of this term, initiated by tweeting the entry for 26 November 1918 in the diary of Rifleman Frederick Walker, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

26 November 1918

His spelling is at odds with that in the Field Service Pocket Book (1914, edn of March 1916), which uses ‘piquet’, as does the 1916 reprint of the 1914 Infantry Training (see below), while the US publications The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms (1917) and Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms (1918)  give ‘picket’, translated into French in the first of these as ‘piquet’.



A few examples of pre-war, wartime and post-war texts, showing the general use of ‘piquet’:


There was a platoon and a half to go away to some place two miles to the south and piquet a road. Denis Oliver Barnett – in happy memory his letters from France and Flanders, October 1914-August 1915 – D. O. Barnett (1915)

My belief is that the enemy will content themselves with placing a piquet on each of the two roads which run through their position. The first hundred thousand, being the unofficial chronicle of a unit of K (1) – I. Hay (1916)

And everyone enjoyed himself until the piquet came. Buddy’s blighty, and other verses from the trenches (c1918)

In the first instance he was in charge of a company ordered to establish a piquet in a position which was much exposed and commanded by fire. He set a fine example in beating off attacks and in attempting to establish the piquet.  Artists’ Rifles War Record (1922)


A frequently expected spelling is ‘picket’, as in:


One midshipman, whose picket boat was blown to pieces under him in the Straits was asked by a foolish journalist in Malta to “give a young officer’s impressions of his experience”  The Scotsman 1915


The OED carries a citation for ‘picket’ in ‘picket boat’ from 1861, which is the date also of the earliest citation using this spelling for a military body of men on sentry or scouting duty. Previously the spelling is ‘piquet’, and there is a note stating ‘In the British Army Regulations spelt piquet’. There is also a citation for ‘picquet’ from the British Army Regulations, 1955.


‘Picquet’ and ‘picket’ seem to be the selected spellings for the punishment stake, where the offender has to stand on one leg atop a picket/picquet. Where the spelling ‘picquet’ comes from, goodness knows; the OED dating of spellings gives it from the 16th century through to the 17th. There is no ‘c’ in the French, and analogous spelling models are unhelpful – the OED gives the ‘rare’ ‘picqueter’, an arranger of artificial flowers, from the French, which in French does not have a ‘c’.


The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales offers two old spellings, the first presumably from the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française:


Ac. 1718: picquet; dep. [depuis? ‘since’] 1740: piquet.

Étymol. et Hist.1. 1380 «bâton pointu, pieu» pichet (A.N. MM 30, fo172 vods Gdf. Compl.)


And the first edition of the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, from 1694, has

s. m. Certain jeu de cartes assez connu. Joüer au picquet. joüer un cent de picquet.


Possibly the insertion of a ‘c’ happened in the environment of France, as a nod to expected, if uninformed, French spelling. Nearby there are Frencq, Cucq and Bréxent-Énocq, but also Le Touquet. But the spelling ‘picquet’ appears also in the diary of Pte James Jones of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment, on 30 May 1917; at the time he was stationed in Salonica.