Harry Frees

Naval slang is a much passed-over subject in FWW sociolinguistics. Most wartime naval slang in English was in place before 1914, and only a small proportion of those who volunteered or were conscripted in Britain went into the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy, which diminished the sources of slang compared to the army. Fraser and Gibbons missed one of our favourite naval slang expressions, ‘The Accident’, for tinned meat, noted in the Midlothian Advertiser 30 April 1915, but other newspaper articles on navy slang did note ‘Harry Frees’.


Partridge noted how this phrase developed from ‘to drink at Harry Freeman’s quay’, meaning to drink at someone else’s expense, to ‘it’s Harry Freeman’s’ for anything that turned out to be free. He recorded that the ‘Freeman’s’ disappeared during the First World War, and began to be attached to other expressions, which would be extended with the suffix –ers. Thus ‘breakfast’ became ‘Harry brekkers’, for no apparent reason other than the enjoyable daftness of the sound. According to Partridge, by 1918 the expression ‘Harry flatters’ was in use for ‘flat out from exhaustion’. The form enjoyed several periods of revival during the 20thcentury, in the late 1950s with ‘harry champers’ (champagne), ‘harry bangers’ (sausages), and the famous ‘Harry pinkers’ (pink gin, a navy favourite), which Green’s Dictionary of Slang has dating from 1966. The most outrageous of these has to be ‘Harry preggers’, but that’s a digression.


Much of the slang in an article syndicated in June 1918 is to do with food, mostly straightforward, but with one puzzle – blancmange as ‘chicken food’, which Partridge records as from the 19thcentury. At a time when many people must be disappointed that rummages in the backs of food cupboards have not revealed packets of instant blancmange – or sadder still, Angel Delight (effectively sugar-flavoured sugar with cornflour, milk-powder and gelatine) – can anyone suggest a connection between chicken-food and blancmange?



A very early war glossary

Should we expect early war slang to be naïve or cynical? It is widely noted that slang changes quickly, and this was very much the case with soldiers’ slang during the war; several comments note slang going out of fashion, and the phenomenon of terms being old-hat at the Front by the time they are being picked up at home. The early war slang looks at first a little naïve and out of place. Perhaps this is because its apparent jauntiness does not sit comfortably with the cynicism we link with the industrial killing. James Kilpatrick describes troops in 1914 going into their first action shouting ‘Early doors, this way! Early doors, ninepence!’ Or maybe its deliberate jauntiness was only skin-deep, pointing to a deeper cynicism: by the end of September 1914 there were already thousands of people killed, civilians as well as soldiers, and entertainment metaphors look horribly out of place, if taken at face value.


This list was published in an article syndicated in several papers on 29 September 1914:


Shells were ‘suitcases’; if they did not explode they were said to have ‘lost their keys’.

The positions in the front trench were ‘stalls for the pictures’.

‘I ’anded ’im a plum’ meant ‘I killed him’.

Spies were said to be ‘playing off-side’.

PoWs were ‘ordered off the field’.

The barbed wire was ‘the zoo’.


For this last the correspondent offers the idea that it looked like a cage. This offers an image that might explain the clunky nature of some of the terms, that extended metaphors might have emerged in a conversation behind the lines with a newspaperman. But the quick reaction to a ‘suitcase’ landing nearby and not going off might be some wag remarking that they’d lost its keys. ‘Handing him a plum’ is typical avoidance-slang, seen in countless later phrases. We would think of a cartoon showing a referee red-carding prisoners as pretty harsh, but satire is harsh, and slang satirises standard language; did ‘the zoo’ partially indicate that the soldiers felt they had quickly been relieved of their humanity? Did ‘plum’ refer to a target? A coincidence that one of Charlie Chaplin’s most violent films, involving several situations where people are crushed by trunks, ‘The Property Man’, was released on 1 August 1914.




Within a globe

A rather nice similarity appears between two texts, with the linking word ‘globe’. The first is from Shakespeare’s Henry V, written around 1599. The text is from Act 3 Scene 4



Je te prie, m’enseignez: il faut que j’apprenne aparler. Comment appelez-vous la main en Anglois?


La main? elle est appelee de hand.


De hand. Et les doigts?


Les doigts? ma foi, j’oublie les doigts; mais je mesouviendrai. Les doigts? je pense qu’ils sont
appeles de fingres; oui, de fingres.


La main, de hand; les doigts, de fingres. Je penseque je suis le bon ecolier; j’ai gagne deux motsd’Anglois vitement. Comment appelez-vous les ongles?


Les ongles? nous les appelons de nails.


De nails. Ecoutez; dites-moi, si je parle bien: dehand, de fingres, et de nails.


C’est bien dit, madame; il est fort bon Anglois.


Dites-moi l’Anglois pour le bras.


De arm, madame.


Et le coude?


De elbow.


De elbow. Je m’en fais la repetition de tous lesmots que vous m’avez appris des a present.


Il est trop difficile, madame, comme je pense.


Excusez-moi, Alice; ecoutez: de hand, de fingres,de nails, de arma, de bilbow.


On 16 February 1916 The Globe published an article on soldiers’ speech, from which this is taken:


… an English officer ‘somewhere in France’ … was having his tea in his billet, a small farmhouse in the rear of the trenches, when he heard such scuffling and such shrieks of laughter that he proceeded to investigate. He found in progress an improved international language school, in which Tommy Atkins touched a chair, for instance, and was told its name, repeating it until he could say it correctly, and then the women of the household acquired the English name before he passed to another article in the room, the strange sounds and the mistakes in the process causing gales of laughter.



A few tidbits

On sait que toutes les armées donnent des noms à leurs tranchées. Certains sont même devenus illustres, à force d’être cités dans les communiqués. Chez les Français, ce sont des noms généraux, de villes, d’officiers glorieusement tombés, de particularités  du terrain, etc; chez les Boches, des noms de provinces, de cantons, d’unités qui ont travaillé là, de poètes germaniques, etc. Chez les Anglais, on a, pour le plaisir de la nouveauté, employé beaucoup de noms d’actrices en vogue. Ils reviennent souvent, cités dans les comptes rendus locaux avec le plus grand sérieux. Et il est amusant de lire des phrases comme celles-ci:


–      L’ennemi a semblé très nerveux en face de Mistinguett.

–      L’artillerie a fait laire ce matin les mortiers qui battaient Cécile Sorel depuis la nuit.

–      Une forte patruoille, vers minuit dix, a essayé d’approcher de Gaby Deslys, mais, devant notre attitude, s’est aussitôt retiree sans résultat.


Et cela varie à l’infini, et c’est souvent très drôle; et comme leurs actrices et leurs danseuses seraient fières, si ells savaient que tel endroit porte leur nom, qui a repoussé, la nuit dernière, tous les assauts! …


La Vie Parisienne, November 1917



We know that all the armies give names to their trenches. Some have even become famous for being quoted in press releases. Among the French these are general names, of cities, of gloriously fallen officers, of peculiarities of the terrain, etc.; among the Boches, the names of provinces, cantons, units that worked there, poets who wrote in German, etc. Among the English, many names of popular actresses have been used for the sake of novelty. They come back often, cited in local accounts with the utmost seriousness. And it is fun to read sentences like these:


–      The enemy seemed very nervous in front of Mistinguett.

–      The artillery cleared the mortars that had been beating Cécile Sorel since night.

–      A strong patrol, around ten past midnight, tried to approach Gaby Deslys, but, faced with our attitude, immediately withdrew without result.


And it varies endlessly, and is often very funny; and how proud their actresses and dancers would be if they knew that such a place bore their name, which rejected all assaults last night! …



Peter Chasseaud has Gaby Trench (p126) and Gaby Cottage (p127), but neither of the others; we await further evidence.



A couple more gleanings:

From two East Anglian nespapers, post-war:

‘The borrowings from Hindustani, Maori, French-Canadian, and Arabic were innumerable’ Diss Express 31 July 1925 and Framlingham Weekly News 12 May 1928. ‘Criq’ for brandy we know, and French recruits in 1918 were called ‘Canadiens’, but we would like to hear more French-Canadian and Maori borrowings.


Lest anyone should think Toot Sweet was ‘new language’ (see the reproduction in Fraser and Gibbons of the Punch cartoon of 1917, proposing ‘Nah then allez toot sweet, and the tooter the sweeter’ as ‘new language’), this:


‘The British traveller admits of but two languages on earth, English and Foreign. “Foreign” is what French he has learned at school and not forgotten, and his surprise when German porters don’t know what he means by ‘Ersker le kesker toot sweet’ has always been one of my delights ‘on voyage’, as he himself would call it’.

“Percival”, a gossip columnist for The Referee, a Sunday magazine, 24 July 1904

War words from before the war

Arguments as to which terms would survive the end of the war were matched by arguments about the pre-war origins of supposed war words. This letter from ‘Student’ appeared in the  Sheffield Daily Telegraph 10 January 1917


January 8, 1917

Sir – It would seem that several phrases believed to be the off-spring of the present conflict are really of older date. The other day I mentioned “man-power” as being used at least so long ago as 1905; and I have just noticed that the expression “fog of war” is more than twelve years old. It was employed by a reviewer in “The Times” Literary Supplement for June 24 1904, dealing with the Franco-German war of 1870. “The Intelligence Department of the German army was baffled by the fog of war,” he wrote. And again: “They could form a fog of war and upset Moltke’s calculations.”

This is, perhaps a belated discovery, but it should be of some value to compilers of phrasebooks. Of course, it is possible that the expression is older still. At all events, it is older than the Great War.

Yours truly


There is some consensus that the earliest use of the expression can be found in Carl von Clausewitz’s  Vom Kriege of 1832. But he does not use the exact expression.

Endlich ist die große Ungewißheit aller Datis im Kriege eine eigentümliche Schwierigkeit, weil alles Handeln gewissermaßen in einem bloßen Dämmerlicht verrichtet wird, was noch dazu nicht selten wie eine Nebel- oder Mondschein- beleuchtung den Dingen einen übertriebenen Umfang, ein groteskes Ansehen gibt.

Finally the major uncertainty of all givens in war creates a peculiar difficulty, because all actions are undertaken in a mere dim light, often exaggerating things grotesquely, as in a fog or by moonlight.

We would be grateful to know the actual German version of the expression, if used during the Great War. Also any suggestion of how the term might appear in a phrasebook: e.g. ‘Despite the fog of war our staff officers have provided us with clear instructions’?


On 20 February 1915 The Illustrated London News referred to a contraption which appears in every film set on the Western Front, 1917 being no exception; the ‘trench-periscope (or, to give it its correct name, a hyposcope)’. The word ‘hyposcope’ was used in 1902 by the Daily Chronicle, which described the apparatus as having ‘the peculiarity … that, by an optical contrivance, the marksman, completely under cover, may fire round a corner, so to speak, at an enemy’. The Illustrated London News described the hyposcope as being ‘on the principle of the camera-obscura’. The Illustrated War News  23 December 1914 clarifies the workings, slightly, perhaps not wanting to be seen giving away any secrets that might be useful to the enemy.


Periscopes and hyposcopes attached to rifles were used during the war, notably the Youlten hyposcope, tested originally in 1903, and the later Beech’s periscope rifle. The word ‘hyposcope’ seems to have disappeared during the conflict; it does not appear in Farrow’s American Dictionary of Military Terms (1918), nor does the OED have any postwar citations. The British Newspaper Archive suggests the word had disappeared by the middle of the war, with only three mentions in 1916, and only three since then.


The image here shows, we hope, a hyposcope being tested.