Covid-19 and the language of war

There have been many comments recently on social media on the inappropriateness of using war metaphors in the management of the pandemic. Should health-workers be described as ‘frontline workers’, should those who contract Coronavirus be described as ‘fighting’ the disease, should they ‘win’ or ‘lose’ their ‘battle with the disease’. Is the virus ‘the enemy’? In purely health terms such comments are seen as misleading, as no conscious struggle is involved; the danger is that they imply that those who die are seen as failing, and at worst, wasting the depleted resources. Their treatment is implicitly a waste of money as they did not try harder – thus they fail twice, failing to beat the disease and failing the national effort.


The Queen, with a clear and direct connection to the Second World War, in April 2020 referred to her first broadcast, in 1940, and to possibly the most well-known song associated with that conflict. Discussions of whether it makes for an easy model for helping the mind digest what is happening, or whether it is cheap and lazy thinking will go on, and there are pros and cons; what is undeniable is that the crisis has, just as in 1914, been taken up by commercial advertising.


Within a couple of weeks of the outbreak of the First World War commercial marketing writers were using war terminology to help sell their products, ranging from the fairly drole ‘Business as Usual, during European alterations’ in TheBoot and Shoe Retailer,September 1914,to ‘It’s along way to Tipperary but it doesn’t seem a long way if you are wearing Wood-Milne rubber heels and tips’ in the Daily Sketch, December 1914. Some of these can be perhaps excused, as they were advertisements for products such as cigarettes, toffee, or shaving soap, which were of direct use by soldiers. There were even advertisements that made puns on the Somme/some, as in February 1917 The Tatler carried an advertisement for Gibbs’ shaving soap with the headline: ‘“Somme” shave – It is really “some” soap, this Gibbs’s.’ Commercial companies sponsored food parcels and phrasebooks for soldiers, making sure their names were associated to the product. Was this support or exploitation, or did it uncomfortably embrace both?


As then so now; television advertisements run sequences indicating support for the NHS, with company tags at the end. The companies are in some cases running charitable campaigns, supplying food to the needy, or they may be just encouraging viewers to follow government guidelines. Again the moral ground has hazy edges: health-workers need to relax, and surely many would benefit from the products of a major multinational communications company; many people are going hungry and will undoubtedly benefit from the charitable distribution of food by a major supermarket chain; much extra revenue will accrue from customers who will feel that in buying the products of these companies they are supporting the companies’ support. The end recipients of the revenue will include health services, those who benefit from the charities, and the bank balances of the companies involved.


The language of war in 1914-18 was used for commercial gain; the new ‘front line workers’ are being used in the same way now. At the same time charities benefit and campaigns to overcome the virus succeed. Government public information campaigns sit in the same space as commercial advertising; they use the language of commerce. Capital-based economics will always see more commercial potential in being part of the treatment rather than prevention; just as in 1914, money is the language of war.

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.











Christmas 1916 words

As we move towards the festive end of the year, a look at ‘The Bookman’ issue for Christmas 1916 gives an indication of how the reading public were affected by nearly two and a half years of war.




Immediately noticeable is the use of ‘Xmas’, first cited as such in the OED as used in a letter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1801. There are the expected books on the war, books of poetry and advice, novels and memoirs.




Though there may not be something for everyone in our selection, there are items of linguistic interest. First up is an article on the translation of Belgian poetry.






Then an article on Russian characteristics, as displayed through the language.




A specialist interest is the linguistic mediation of the war to children, and particularly how this was done indirectly; two books here, one for the very young:






Note in this cartoon by Heath Robinson, known for his ramshackle devices, there is the equally improbable invention of the ‘War Inventions Board’; except that there was a Board of Invention and Researchinitiated by the Admiralty in 1915. It became the Scientific Research and Experiment Department in 1918, remaining thus until 1946. According to a well-known internet information site, the Board of Invention and Research received over 41,000 submissions.




At this point, while the work of the site co-ordinators moves more toward editing the third volume of the Languages and the First World War series of essays, we had better accept and affirm that this will now be an occasional blog, rather than a weekly, fortnightly, or at all regular event. Contributions are welcome, as always.

Egyptian mysteries

Egypt pc 1Egypt pc 2Egypt pc 3


Sadly only one of these cards was posted, though the ‘Etla barra’ card has a laconic message on the back – ‘A request, or a demand’. ‘Come to the Caracol’ was sent On Active Service on 9 November 1916 from Algy to Miss Clare Colley in Pembroke, with a familiar impatient message asking for a letter. Neither Fraser and Gibbons, Brophy and Partridge, nor anyone else I can lay my hands on can help with what the Caracol was – any thoughts anyone? Obviously not an appealing destination for young people; though noting the relative sizes of the characters, they may not be young so much as of lower status. A semiotic coding of status by size was fairly common in British cartoons and comics at this time.


Garland Cannon and Alan S Kaye in  The Arabic Contributions to the English Language: An Historical Dictionary (1994) note how in The Island of Dr Fu Manchu two British characters use the phrase ‘Etla bárra! Gehánumm!’ as a shibboleth to make their way past people who would recognise, but not understand, Arabic. Quest Arabiya, a tv channel broadcasting in Arabic, has a ‘new adventure show’ called “Etla Barra”. Can any Arabic speakers help out here?


The intrusive H

It is a truism that sergeant-majors on parade when calling troops to attention say anything but ‘Attention’: the varieties generally are ‘ten-shun’, ‘shun’, or more interestingly ‘hattention’. Why the intrusive ‘h’, and how does it connect to other intrusive ‘h’ usages?


Barbara Fennell (A History of the English Language, Blackwell, 2001) gives a useful survey of /h/-loss in the Middle English period and later; it began to disappear between 1300 and 1600, ‘hlaford’ becoming ‘lord’, and ‘hlafdige’ becoming ‘lady’, and was probably a middle-class unstigmatised speech change. However, by the eighteenth century ‘h’-loss was a sign of vulgar speech, and a phenomenon which excited some comment. John Walker in 1791 reserved particular disapprobation for the people of London who sank their ‘h’s; by this time a clear class distinction had been associated to the usage, so much so that middle-class speakers strove to avoid it. This would certainly explain the class-aware intrusive ‘h’ in sentences such as /Hay thank you/, characterised as posh English used by the socially aspiring, a mid-twentieth century phenomenon now more or less obsolete.


Early-twentieth century music-hall comperes and mid-twentieth century bus conductors were also characterised as using intrusive ‘h’s at the beginning of sentences, most likely intended for emphasis in noisy environments; in both cases there may have been an ironic self-aware class-identification, a ‘listen to me’ aspect to the deliberate pronunciation with social class aspirations, pitching the speaker as having some authority, which would link to the sergeant-major on parade. All three, bus-conductor, music hall chairman, and sergeant-major, would often have been near the edges of the social class Walker eyes, ‘the people of London [who have the habit of] sinking the at the beginning of words where it ought to be sounded and of sounding it, either where it is not seen, or where it ought to be sunk. Thus we not infrequently hear, especially among children, heart pronounced art, and arm, harm.’ Walker’s influence on ideas of acceptable pronunciation was strong throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth; certainly ‘h’-loss was stigmatised until fairly recently, and still characterised as typical of London or estuary accents. The compensatory class associations of ‘Ha-ten-shun’ remain complex.

John Walker, A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, 1791


Today we look at the use of the word ‘pidgin’ in First World War memoirs written during the conflict.


‘Pidgin’ has long been used in two ways, to describe an untutored form of a given language, and more usefully to describe a language used between distinct language-speakers, often based on one of their languages, with adaptations and major losses or simplifications of inflexions (word-endings) or verb case forms. It derives from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word ‘business’, a strong indicator of its social origin and value. Thus you can have ‘Pidgin’ (for the Chinese-English based pidgin), ‘a pidgin’ (derived from any given two or more languages), or specific varieties such as ‘Pidgin-English’, describing a pidgin in which the main derivative language is English, ‘Pidgin-French’, and so on. The OED defines ‘pidgin’ as ‘a language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language’. The key point of this definition is that it is not a parody of a language, though that may often be a usage for the terms ‘pidgin-English’ or ‘pidgin-French’ – and often these terms debase the language and usually one of the speakers. A ‘creole’, by the way, is a language that develops from a pidgin, with its own grammar and syntax developing independently.


The first view given above of what a pidgin is can be seen in throw-away usages, such as that of J H Morgan in Gentleman at Arms (1918); here he is speaking of a sailor with a strong East Anglian accent: ‘I noticed that he used none of that truculent pidgin English which by a curious literary convention so many longshoremen of letters put into the mouth of those who go down to the sea in ships.’ Here ‘pidgin’ appears to mean ‘non-standard’. The origin of the term in ‘business’ is seen in the now less frequently used application of the word  to describe a concern or area of interest, the spelling deriving from the original use of ‘pidgin’ as ‘business’; the OED defines this usage as ‘a person’s concern, responsibility, or area of interest or expertise’. Thus in At the War (1916) by Lord Northcliffe ‘Spain is, from the German point of view, distinctly Germany’s “pidgin.”’


Neville Hilditch was aware of how pidgin operated as a specific language in colonial circumstances: ‘None of the natives, it is note-worthy, spoke German, even in Cameroon, but pidgin-English instead.’ (from Battle Sketches 1914-15, 1915). Previous colonial experience might be indicated in a writer’s awareness of the origin of Pidgin: in Sixteen Months in Four German Prisons (1917), Henry Mahoney wrote ‘The absence of the officers was explained a little later. They had been searching for an interpreter, so that I might be put through another inquisition. This interpreter was about the most incompetent of his class that one could wish to meet. His English was execrable – far worse than Chinese pidgin – and he had an unhappy and disconcerting manner of intermingling German and English words …’


However, this kind of awareness of pidgin’s use as a language in the colonial situation is often tinged with indications of the essentially patronising view of colonised peoples: when the AIF took over Neu Pommern (New Pomerania, now New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea) on 11 September 1914 the change of government was signified by a proclamation, reported in The Illustrated War News 30 December 1914 – ‘The proclamation was read by Major Francis Heritage … For the benefit of the natives an address was given in amusing “pidgin” English.’


Ivan Rossiter of the 1st& 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles saw how pidgin works, developing into a language with its own exclusivities: ‘It will be surprising after the war the number of prison soldiers who will be able to converse at least in French, and who will know something of German or Russian or both. A new “language” has been born of this war, in the German prison camps, and is a medium of conversation between the different nationalities, being made up of German, Russian, French and English, resembling somewhat pidgin-English. It serves the purpose admirably, although it would be impossible for any one but a prisoner in a German camp to understand it.’  In Kultured Kaptivity – Life and Death in Germany’s Prison Camps and Hospitals, Ivan Rossiter (1918).


Often the term is used to describe an attempt to create an intelligible statement, often in stressed circumstances, by reaching for words from any suitable language. When Wallace Ellison escaped from a German prison camp and knocked on the door of some Dutch-speakers he was immediately taken inside. ‘I told him in a sort of pidgin-German-English that I was an Englishman who had just escaped from Germany’. Escaped! Adventures in German Captivity (1918). Similarly, L W Crouch describes one of his colleagues:  ‘Our servants are very amusing here. There is a chubby and cheery daughter at this farm, about eighteen years old. Coy is awfully funny with her, talking pidgin French.’ (Duty and Service, Letters from the Front (1917). And Alan Bott, in Eastern Nights – and Flights, a Record of Oriental Adventure (1919): ‘I produced ten more banknotes, each of one Turkish pound. Again using pidgin-Turkish, with many an expressive gesture, I offered them to the guards.’ And John Reed, in The War in Eastern Europe (1916): ‘One spoke English, another harsh maritime French, a third Neapolitan, a fourth Levantine Spanish, and still another pidgin-German; all knew Greek, and the strange patois of the Mediterranean sailor.’


How do we assess these uses of the term? Given that in these circumstances they indicate that the usually monolingual speaker spoke poor French or poor German, are they describing the ‘business’ of escape or stressed negotiation? Is there an underlying sense of racial hierarchy in the implication of ‘non-standard’, ‘good enough to get by’ and ‘no need to try harder to learn the language of other people’? Or is ‘pidgin’ a real-life semantic shift to describe in extreme circumstances what in more leisured environments would be lingua franca?








Refugee Love

In 1920 a popular novel was published in Antwerp, Refugeeliefde. Een volksroman uit het leven der Belgische Vluchtelingen in Engeland (‘Refugee love. A romance from the lives of the Belgian Refugees in England’). The author, Paul Van Opstal, used an alias and was in fact Floris Prims (1882-1954), who became the main archivist of the port city of Antwerp in 1925. Prior tot he war he was deeply involved in the development of christian socialism (along with friar Rutten for instance). During the war, he had become one of the most prominent proponents of the Catholic Belgian community in exile, along with Mgr. Dewachter and fellow priests or canons such as Rutten, Michiels, Ingelbeen and Callewaert. Prims had been close to Catholic circles around the figure of Mgr. De Wachter – who was the head of the Belgian Catholic community in exile – and Frans Van Cauwelaert, the mayor of Antwerp. Van Cauwelaert established the first Dutch newspaper in Flanders right before the war, but this appeared only after the war. An important financial backer of that newspaper was Dr. Alfons Van de Perre, who was the main funder of a Dutch newspaper for Belgian refugees, produced, printed and distributed in Britain, the Stem Uit België (‘the voice from Belgium’), a weekly (more or less) that initially appeared in two languages (as in: a mixture of, not in parallel). Floris Prims was its editor-in-chief. The editorial offices of the Stem Uit België -mostly on Russell Square, London – became a hub for finding one another in a strange land (a temporary lodging place even), for financial transactions and for booklets and leaflets alike.



Floris Prims


The above description of a network that found a temporary translation in exile in Britain is the setting in which the tireless Prims managed to write and publish a serial, called Refugeeliefde. Its serial publication is a bit of an enigma as the first real episode, in the issue of 17 January 1917, was chapter five already. The main language of Refugeeliefde was Dutch, in both varieties. The dialogue was mostly mimicking a more regional dialect, whereas the narrative attempted to be more proper Dutch. The first episode contained the sentence “Nurse, somebody is asking for you downstairs” which appeared to be a trick by a Belgian who pretended to be British. The English utterance is part of the overall plot there. The seventh instalment slightly moves away from that device of including an English sentence and Prims slowly moves to code switching at a smaller level: “Chère Hélène, Dommage dat ge gisteren niet hier waart! De bijoux zijn teruggevonden”, “entre paranthèse” and “ineens werd ze gewaar que la fixais”. Latin was used to denote the gravity of a situation, such as the last rites: “Domine, non sum dignus…”. If Prims found his voice by mixing French into the Dutch/Flemish, it as only going to be a matter of time before he would start building dialogue on English snippets. On 16 February 1917 this next level happened: “Moi ici, if you please, moi malade, if you please, tout est rempli. If you please… Doe maar open…”, a first occurrence of both languages of the community in exile and the host community. Despite the war dragging on and Belgian refugees no longer being the heroes they were in 1914, Prims still tied in the English hosts with their ‘hourrah’ feeling when they spotted a Belgian. Whether this perception triggered his next action is a bit uncertain, but he printed a request alongside the episode, seeking inspiration from stories by refugees themselves. The subsequent issue of the Stem Uit België printed the conclusion of the episode. With the next chapter of the serial appearing 23 February, ‘verpleegsters’ turned into ‘nursen’, an amalgamation of the English plural word and the Dutch plural ending. Another English bit of dialogue appeared ‘Next, please’. Peculiarly the story now had a translator running around, but one who never actually showed any work being done as all he relayed to his fellow refugees was printed in Dutch already. An element from daily refugee life for sure, but not fairly presented. Increasingly double code switching was included (‘de tea party par Mrs Dining’) or outright borrowing, either with quotation marks (een nieuwe “bracelet esclave”) or without (‘terug komend van den Registrar’). Latin was presented in conjunction with the main stages of Catholic patrimony (birth, confirmation, marriage, death): ‘Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium’.


The episode of 1 March 1917 concluded with an announcement that the “Bracelet Esclave” would become a serial in its own right from the subsequent week. Refugeeliefde itself continued well for another year (1 March 1918), and eventually got published in Belgium in 1920. “Bracelet Esclave” did not start until a fortnight after that, packed with code switching, much more so than its predecessor. Most of it being English. The friction along the linguistic divide that also ran through the Belgian community in exile in Britain (Flemish vs. Walloon) was omitted, instead focus lay with the language of the host community, like Dutch a Germanic language as well.


Doughboys and Sammies

Jonathon Green, ever generous in passing on information relevant to this project, alerts us to a column by Damon Runyon in the Pittsburgh Daily Post, 25 July 1917, concerning the origin and validity of the various nicknames given to American soldiers in the First World War These included ‘Sammies’, ‘Doughboys’, and ‘Teddies’, the last deriving from Theodore Roosevelt. Runyon’s historical perspective points out that in 1898, when the US was engaged in a colonial war against Spain, one name used was ‘Jonny Green’, though he did not know why; ‘the fact that the average reader probably never heard of the title as applied to our soldiers shows how successful was the attempt, yet it was frequently used in many newspapers for a spell’, a trope that applied equally during the First World War. The newspapers themselves were certainly aware of what was happening: the Scottish Daily Record for 12 June 1917 carried a syndicated story that stated ‘Our own troops arebound give their Transatlantic colleagues a nickname; but whether the one suggested will meet with their approval remains to seen.’ Other syndicated articles around the time reckoned that ‘it was generally agreed that the old name of the Regular infantryman, Doughboy, would fail to carry any conviction’. The journalists were said to be ‘casting around’ for a name, and ‘Sammy’, presumably from Uncle Sam, was their choice.‘Sammy’ is described by Runyon as a name that ‘evolved after profound thought’, noting that names that tend to stick are ‘extemporaneous’ – Runyon himself in The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown (1933), the basis of Guys and Dolls had some good ones: ‘The Sky’ (later Sky Masterson), Brandy Bottle Bates, Dobber. Punch on 13 June 1917 claimed to be proposing the name ‘Sammy’, though the Sheffield Evening Telegraph (12 March 1918) reckoned that ‘They [the soldiers] do not know what the word means’;  E. T. Cook in Literary Recreations, (1918),  noted that the New York Sun urged that the American soldier’s nickname ‘must be Teddy’. For Runyon the name ‘doughboy’ was the obvious name, and one that he believed was in wide use, and not resented. He had heard of the use of the term ‘wagon soldier’ for field artillerymen, and ‘flapper’ for aviators. ‘Doughboys’ is supposed to come from the shape of the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms, or connected ideas – see Notes and Queries November 1918 carried a letter from ‘ATM’ supporting the idea of ‘doughboy’ as a name given by American cavalrymen to the infantry.


‘Tommy’ was resented by many British soldiers, as pointed out in Words and the First World War, who were more likely to address each other as ‘Bill’ or ‘chum’ (‘chum’ rather than ‘mate’); the lengthy article and glossary compiled by A Forbes Sieveking in Notes and Queries published on 29 October 1921 included ‘Erb. Substitute used when a man’s Christian name is not known’. Now more or less ignored in First World War mythology, ‘Erb appears frequently in wartime memoirs; Ian Hay has an ‘Erb who is killed while playing cards in the trenches (Carrying On – After the First Hundred Thousand, 1917); Ward Muir in Observations of an Orderly (1917) has “Same ol’ ‘Erb”; and Songs & Sonnets for England in War Time (1914) has both ‘Erbert and ‘Erb in the poem ‘The Vindication’ by Philip Bussy, which ends:


So, ‘Erb, my hero, march along and win :

The God of Wars stand by you !


The long influence of the trench journal

The influence of the First World War trench journal carried on into the Second World War, though regimental examples are less well-known. This example was created by an unlikely group – in FWW terms that is – conscientious objectors.


Flowery cover


Noticeable is the continuation of the word ‘conchie’, and apart from the introduction by Fenner Brockway, its contributions are anonymous, though Brockway identifies some contributors. Another similarity is the anti-authoritarian stance, The Flowery being a compilation from a total of 17 individual handmade magazines, one copy per issue, made secretly, each issue/copy being handwritten and bound using the thread issued to conchies in prison for the purpose of sewing mailbags. In this they echo some of the most precious FWW trench journals, those written by hand, just as much as they echo the barely-known ‘conchie trench journals’ of 1914-1919.

Brockway describes the making process, the writers and artists preparing their handwritten and hand-drawn copy out of sight, the sheets then being bound either in cells or inside a mailbag as it was supposed to be being worked on. It was as secretive as the comparable processes had been in the First World War.





Other similarities are the wordplay of the title, explained by Brockway; and the alphabet, familiar to all who have looked at trench journals for 1914-18.


Flowery alphabet


Borderlands and crossovers


Figure. Memorial stone at the entrance of Aquileia’s war cemetery.


The language of maps and their organisation of nations and regions over time can be very challenging to understand when touring the very areas or visiting specific sites that have had several cartographic adherences and different constitutional belongings in the past. If maps really help constitute the world they represent, then this is most certainly true for the larger area that gives onto the Gulf of Trieste: east of the Tagliamento river, south of the Friulian pre-Alps and west of current-day Postojna.

Some of it was part of Austria-Hungary, not least the maritime port of Trieste, whereas other parts belonged to Italy. But most areas shifted several times in the past 200/300 years. By 1920, however, large parts became Italian. Subsequently, thousands of Slavs, mainly Slovenes, had to endure forced Italianisation. Or simply left. The area’s history of the 1920s and 1930s is quite complicated in terms of fascist influences, Slovenian unrest, anti-fascist terrorism and anti-Semitic campaigns. The Second World War, British and American occupying forces along the Morgan Line after the war and the emergence of the nation state of Yugoslavia continued a much complicated understanding of this Adriatic corner of Europe.


Figure. The areas around the Gulf of Trieste and the Morgan Line (1945-1947). Zone A was managed by western forces, zone B by Yugoslav ones. (source: the dreaded W)


The area which was the most complicated after the Second World War (the tiny part of Zone B included in Zone A, the orange and yellow parts) coincide with the pre-First World War Austrian Littoral, a crown land of the Austrian Empire. It had previously belonged to the Republic of Venice. In this entire region the population nearly always consisted of the same main ethnic groups, even though prominence and presence shifted considerably between 1849, when the Austrian Littoral was established, and 1947, when a treaty sealed the border between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Part of the area are cities like Udine and Pordenone. Pordenone, in fact located beyond the Tagliamento, was an Austrian enclave until it was acquired by the Republic of Venice and after the Napoleonic period included in the Austrian possessions in Italy, only to become Italian again in 1866. Further to the east, Udine was the seat of the Italian High Command during the First World War and even called “Capitale della Guerra”. The city is now more aptly referred to as the Capital of War and Peace, the latter addition because resistance was strong after Germany had taken the city in 1917 (and also because the war-related title passed on to Padova in 1918).

Just south of Udine lies Comune di Santa Maria la Longa. Referred to as a resting place for troops during the First World War, the municipality also remembers the war in a more poetic manner: the renowned Italian war poet Guiseppe Ungaretti wrote three war poems while at la Longa. Still, as ever with claims to fame, Udine believes it is the prime location where Ungaretti’s war poetry started.[1] Slightly more to the east, north of Monfalcone, lies the Parco Ungaretti, in Sagrado. Il Parco Più Bello includes a villa, where soldiers produced graffiti on the walls between June and August 1916.[2] The memorial parc is itself very near to Redipuglia Memorial, the largest military memorial in Italy, housing the remains of over 100,000 Italians.


Figure. Monumento alla poesia “M’illumino d’immenso” (Giuseppe Ungaretti) di Santa Maria la Longa (source Tourism FVG)[3].


Further south of Udine is the fortified town of Palmanova (currently UNESCO World Heritage), which had been Austrian between 1815 and 1866, when it was returned to Italy. During the First World War, however, it became one of the most eastern outposts of Austria-Hungary. Just south of Palmanova lies Aquileia, a small city with a proud past as one of the main cities of the Roman Empire. Aquileia is one of the main archaeological sites in Italy and still attracts the crowds, although much less so that Rome, Ostia or Pompei. Just behind the Aquileia Cathedral, behind a 9th century campanile and apse, many soldiers of the First World War lie buried alongside the town’s saint, Hermagoras (who actually hails from Carinthia). The Cemetery of Heroes of Aquileia is noted site for several reasons, not least because it has maintained its original shape since 1915.


Figure. A cemetery of heroes, Aquileia.


The cemetery also holds the very first casualties of the wider region. Also, the Unknown Soldier buried at the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome left this cemetery in 1921. It was Don Celso Costantini, a local priest, who took care of providing a resting place to the fallen soldiers. A number of trees and plants were sent from Florence. Each modest tomb features an iron cross that is decorated with laurel and oak leaves. The crosses were created by sculptor Alberto Calligaris and donated by the association “Dante Alighieri”.


Figure. Oak and laurel leaves, Dulce et Decorum. Aquileia cemetery.


Each cross carries the name of the deceased and the words Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori. [4] Much has been written on Owen’s inclusion of the phrase in his war poetry and how the old lie had indeed been exposed in his drafts (end of 1917 / early 1918), but the line is above all one from the Roman lyrical poet Horace’s Odes. At Aquileia no critique can be sensed, this is the ancient ode to the fallen.

On the back of the Cathedral wall, facing the soldiers, there is a quote by the other key Italian war poet Gabriele d’Annunzio that equally echoes the Dulce et Decorum of early war graves.


Figure. Inscription by Gabriele d’Annunzio at the back of Aquileia Cathedral.


O Aquileia, donna di tristezza, sovrana di dolore tu serbi le primizie

della forza nei tumuli di zolle all’ombra dei cipressi pensierosi.

Custodisci nell’erba i morti primi, una vergin ità di sangue sacro

e quasi un rifiorire di martirio che rinnovella in te la melodia

La madre chiama e in te comincia ilo canto. Nel profondo di te

comincia il canto l’inno comincia degli imperituri quando il

divino calice s’inalza. Trema a tutti i viventi il cuore in petto

Il sacrificio arde fra l’alpe e il mare.

O Aquileia, woman of sadness, sovereign of pain, you keep the first traces of force

in the turf mounds in the shadow of thoughtful cypresses.

Safeguard the first dead in the grass, a virginity of sacred blood

and almost a flourishing of martyrdom that renews the melody in you.

The mother calls and in you begins singing. Deep within you begins the song,

the hymn of the everlasting begins when the sacred chalice is raised.

The heart in the chest trembles to all the living

The sacrifice burns between the Alps and the sea.[5]


However, the cemetery also had a statue of a woman-like person, clearly mourning the dead, but also looking pitying. No clear identity of the statue and its sculptor was obtained by the time of writing/publishing online, but the cemetery and the statue sensibly echoed the language that supersedes the language of maps and territorial gain.


BandC7Figure. Mourning statues, Aquileia / Vladslo.


More on La Grande Guerra in Fruili-Venezia-Guilia via an interactive map on







[5] Draft translation, with many imperfections.

DV & WP, and willy nilly

Further to the last blog, Amanda Laugesen sends in this excerpt from a humorous letter published in an Australian newspaper in 1918:

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Typical Australian linguistic inventiveness produced this the year after the Armistice, from the Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser, 17 May 1919:

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‘Deo volente’ appears from time to time in war memoirs – this is from Some War Impressions by Jeffery Farnol (1918):

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Farnol went on to become a prolific novelist, with his own turn of language, giving rise to A glossary of Farnolese : defining archaic, cant, colloquial, slang, Gypsy/Romany, Scottish/Gaelic, unusual and vernacular words used by Jeffery Farnol in his novels and short stories, compiled by William E. Forland and published in 2009.

Searches for ‘D V and WP’ under various disguises have brought nothing, but there is another Latin phrase, now more or less disappeared, which does occasionally come up – nolens volens.

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Lofty, and worthy, sentiments from William Ewing, Chaplain to the Forces, in From Gallipoli to Baghdad (1917). ‘Nolens volens’ means ‘whether you deny it or no’; actually it is usually translated backwards as ‘whether a person wants or likes something or not’ (otherwise ‘will ye or nill ye’, which became ‘willy-nilly’, now sadly changing its meaning to ‘confusedly’, not altogether unaptly). ‘Drouthy’ by the way is a Scots dialect word for ‘thirsty’, connected to ‘drought’.

Are there any other Latin tags that were in use in the war that have fallen out of use? Here is a notable use of ‘A fortiori’, used to mean ‘even more so’, in Elmer Southard’s extensive study of the medical literature on shell-shock, Shell-shock and Other Neuropsychiatric Problems, presented in five hundred and eighty-nine case histories (1919).

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Not at all out of use, but rare to see on a postcard, is the rather fatalistic dum spiro spero (while I breathe I hope) on a postcard from 1915.

Dum Spiro b

Dum Spiro a


The only possible Ed Rump recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records is Private Edward Rump, of the East Kent Regiment, died aged 20 on 28 October 1918, tragically close to the Armistice; the combination of an education level including knowledge of Latin and a marriage age of 17 would be unlikely at this time, so this Ed Rump may indeed have survived to be with his Seaside Rose again.







Sealed with a Kiss, Part 2

Chez Nos Alliés Britanniques (With our British Allies in the Field) was written by C. J. Fernand-Laurent, a French interpreter attached to the British Expeditionary Force, and published in 1917; a very useful fund of information about the logistics of serving in the field in this role, the book also carries many observations on soldiers’ language, much of it with an endearing sense of humour and irony.


The following extract considers a previously noted sealing text put on soldiers’ letters, which was questioned by La Vie Parisienne, on account of the fact that letters were actually sealed by censors; and goes on to discuss a now less well-known set of letters.


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     When Tommy has completed his letter, he does not sign it immediately. He lays down his hand for a moment, then, amorously, sets out a double row of little crosses. A kiss for each cross; there’s one for papa, one for mama, for the kiddies …


      A new pose. Then, on the back of the envelope Tommy writes these initials, in capitals and looking mysterious: S. W. A. K.  Don’t try to find out what it means.  S. W. A. K. means Sealed With A Kiss. Charming little childhood things from men who at any moment will be killed as heroes.


      Tommy, moreover, is particularly fond of these intimate abbreviations. Thus, if, in his epistle, he alludes to a possible relocation he never fails to add with wise prudence: D.V. and W.P., ​​an Anglo-Latin combination, which for the initiates means: God willing and weather permitting. Now this explanation was not I believe given by the Tommies; I really do believe that in effect these brave men use this traditional formula with no understanding of what it means.


Earlier uses of ‘DV and WP’ have proved difficult to trace, but Fernand-Laurent clearly believed it to be a traditional term by the time he heard it. Has anyone come across ‘DV and WP’ in a First World War letter?

Captain Keyworth revisited

The last blog examined Easy Serbian for our Men Abroad, published in 1915, and written by Captain J S Keyworth, who published a number of titles in this format; we are now able to compare this with three others, Easy French for our Men Abroad, Easy German for our Men Abroad and Easy Italian for our Men Abroad.


Immediately noticeable is that the Serbian phrasebook differs from the French, Italian and German ones right on page 1, adding ‘up there’, ‘down there’ and ‘here’, and later ‘railway’ and ‘latrine’ to the ‘where is the …?’ questions. The Serbian has ‘forward’ and ‘back’, which the others omit, and the Serbian generally offers more phrases – ‘very far’, ‘the garden’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, which do not appear in the others.


It, Fr Ger, p1


The differences are curious: the Serbian, French and German move from requests for wine, beer, brandy (plum-brandy for Serbian), tea and coffee, to tobacco, cigar, cigarettes, matches, pipe, cigarette papers, and then to paper, envelope, ink, etc, while the Italian phrasebook asks for these much earlier, straight after the meat foods: tyurkey, pork, butter, honey, pudding, milk, wine, brandy, tea, tobacco, and then paper, blotting paper, cotton, salt, pepper, meat, soup, jam, etc The Italian list of groceries requested later runs: eggs, potatoes, cabbages, sausages, vegetables, biscuits, matches, cigarette paper, fruit, a cauliflower, an onion, a cigar, pencil, newspaper, book, bath, glass, knife. It is all rather random.


Pages 6 and 7 in all texts runs from animals, to persons, to clothing, to ‘a few military terms’. The German, Italian and French animals (have you a …?) run – horse, mule, donkey, cow, sheep, goat, pig, dog, cat, fish, bird. The Serbian substitutes ‘donkey’ with ‘ox’, omits ‘fish’, and ends with the phrase ‘we have not got …’, a reflection of awareness of shortage in Serbia, perhaps. The ‘Persons’ section in the French and Italian books ask ‘Have you seen …?’ with a list of persons and relations, while the German gives the phrase ‘Call …’ for all persons; the Serbian text begins with ‘Have you seen …?’, which is replaced with ‘That is my …’  The German and French lists of clothes run to eight, the Italian to seven, and the Serbian to 13, including ‘knickers’, ‘drawers’, ‘handkerchief’, ‘waistcoat’ and ‘top-boots’.


The ‘few military terms’ are similar in the French, Italian and German texts, with the exception that the Italian text has ‘Italians’ instead of ‘Belgians’ in the list of five nationalities. The Serbian text differs again, in beginning with the words for ‘The war’ and ‘a soldier’, and perhaps obviously the list of nationalities runs to Poles, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Roumanians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Turks, Bosnians, Italians, Hungarians and Austrians.


Most noticeable is that the Serbian phrasebook has three pages more than the others, though this is not due to filling out across all fields – the French has 30 terms for the ‘In hospital’ section while the Serbian has 23. Where the Serbian extends is in the ‘Simple phrases’ section, conjugating various tenses for ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, and including ‘I shall have to’, ‘it pleases me’, ‘A good journey!’, ‘without me’ and ‘what is this called?’


How to interpret these? The French and German texts were produced in 1914, the Italian possibly in early 1915, and the Serbian in 1915; was there felt to be a need for a fuller list of texts, or for phrasebooks that more accurately reflected the nature of the cultures being addressed? The presence of plum-brandy and paprika and mince would seem to argue so.

Easy Serbian


Captain Keyworth was a talented linguist, contributing as joint or sole author, mostly sole, to at least six phrasebooks published during the First World War; lest anyone suspect that his was an invented name, J S Keyworth contributed after the war to a series of language books for travellers: Dutch, Spanish, Danish and Italian for the Traveller, which were also translated into the recipient languages. We would like to hear more of Captain Keyworth, as the Dictionary of National Biography does not have an entry on him. Clearly one of those successfully supplying the need for phrasebooks, he was rewarded with two editions each of his Easy French  and Easy German For Our Men Abroad … in 1914.




The title Easy … for our men abroad and How to Pronounce it was applied across all six titles shown on the back cover, though we have yet to check if the same set of words was translated each time (more on this later) – the food list does have plum brandy and paprika and mince, which might be harder to find in France. Most noticeable is the instant entrance into the tumult of conflict – Where are our men? Over there. Up there. Down there. Here. I don’t know. Impressive too is the addressing of the reality of war: He is wounded, dead, unconscious, killed. And the sense of a meaningful and useful conversation: Have you seen the woman? That is my mother. The military terms include an extended list of the national groupings to be found in the Balkan theatre of war – Bosnians, Montenegrins, Roumanians [contemporary spelling], Greeks, but the all-important ‘I don’t understand’, ‘Speak slowly’ and ‘I don’t speak Serbian’ are quite hard to find – why are these phrases not right at the beginning?


Keyworth was also smart in using the quote from the Daily Mail, also appearing on the French edition, so presumably across all titles; the mention of the Red Cross would have appealed to VADs and others serving abroad. I am going to take the liberty here of pasting in a quote from another blog, which discusses the French version,


“The need for supplementing the average Briton’s extremely fragmentary knowledge of French and German- has led to the formation of language classes for recruits of the new army, and many pocket dictionaries and conversation manuals have been published from time to time for the use of the men already in the field. Amongst the latter it would be difficult to find anything better than Captain Keyworth’s Easy French and Easy German. Small enough to be carried inside an ordinary pocket-book, these leaflets contain phrases and words most likely to be required by the soldier…” – The British Medical Journal, February 13, 1915.


The source of this review also merits exploration. Next blog. Nevill Forbes was one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated Russian language scholars in Britain; his Russian Grammar, first published in 1914, was edited for its third edition in 1990.