How did Gertie come to wear velvet?

We are reposting a few posts from the former site, so that these become more widely available.

The Anglicisation of placenames in France and Belgium raises the question of how these came about; the humour of the result is so good that it should, but often does not, lead us to look for the process of word-creation. There is little evidence for anyone saying or writing ‘let’s call this place Wipers’, so we are thrown back on internal or circumstantial pointers. Wipers is the most well-known Anglicisation, but the place was also called ‘Eeep’ and ‘Eeprees’; the first example comes from John Buchan writing in 1919, who said that ‘“Wipers” [was] not a name given by the British private soldier. He called it “Eeep.” “Wipers” was an officer’s name, gladly seized on by journalists and by civilians at home’. [St Barnabas Pilgrimage to the Menin Gate, 1927. p8]. Veteran RFA gunner (i.e. non-officer) Percy Bryant interviewed in 1975 pronounced it ‘Eeprees’ [IWM interviews 24862].

Given that there was little contact between British soldiers and Flemish-speakers, the greater likelihood is that exposure to the name of Ypres was through its French pronunciation, which would have come into English as ‘Eepre’, or reading the French or Flemish spelling (Ypres/Ieper), which would have given ‘Eepres’ or ‘Yeper’; the local Flemish pronunciation is more like ‘Eeper’. ‘Wipers’ seems to be a deliberate joke based on the first letter of the French spelling, while the standard English pronunciation, with a bit of knowledge as to how French pronunciation works, would have given Buchan’s proposed ‘other ranks’ version, ‘Eep’; with a bit less knowledge of French, but making a good attempt, this would easily come out as ‘Eeprees’. It is worth remembering here that there is plenty of evidence for British soldiers being prepared to have a go at French, and in many cases to set themselves to try to learn a bit: in a recorded dramatization In the Trenches directed by Major A E Rees in 1917, which has both authenticating and absurdly unrealistic aspects, cockney Private Reginald ‘Tippy’ Winter is spotted reading a French manual (of which there were several cheap versions printed, with pronunciation guides), though his chum Ginger claims he is doing it only to be able to speak to French girls. An Anglicisation such as Sally on the Loose (Sailly sur la Lys) depends on understanding ‘sur’ and ‘la’; not much, but at least some awareness of French.

 

As regards Ypres though, there are two other important factors: the medieval Ypres Tower at Winchelsea, which Fraser & Gibbons (1925) point out, was always called the ‘Wipers Tower’ or ‘Wypers Tower’; and it is easy to underestimate the influence on this question of the Wipers Times. So, from the example of Ypres we see the joke version coming from officer-level wordplay based on the written/printed word, and the ‘have a go’ version coming from spoken language from the other ranks; but ‘Wipers’ was used so widely in the press (from November 1914) that it quickly spread throughout soldiers in training before they got to Flanders.

 

A more clear etymology can be seen in the wonderfully dismissive change from Albert to ‘Bert’; in this case the French pronunciation of the town is nothing like the Anglicisation, lending weight to the proposal that this case derived from the written or printed word. The French Mouquet Ferme (Moo-cow Farm), Armentieres (Armentears), Ingouville (Inky Bill) and Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas) clearly are examples of Anglicisation from sound, as are the Flemish Wytschaete (White Sheet) and Dickebusch (Dickybush). But the Anglicisation of Bois Gernier as Boys Grenyer depends on spelling, as do Doignes (Dogs Knees), and Doingt (Doing It), the French pronunciation not resembling the Anglicised version. Godewaersvelde (Gertie wears velvet) is less clear, but the Flemish spoken version would have been fairly difficult for the untutored British soldier to unravel, so the Anglicisation here possibly comes via both paths. In any case the anglicised versions travelled along spoken paths with speed, and settled quickly to what sat comfortably in the various accents of the British Army as Hoop Lane (Houplines), Plugstreet (Ploegsteert) and the delightfully pragmatic Pop (Poperinghe). What remains is to see if there were variations emerging from the various accents and dialects within the British and Imperial forces: did similarities to names familiar to battalions before 1916 influence or provide variations on place-names?

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