This post owes much to Lynda Mugglestone’s work on Andrew Clark’s collecting of words during the war, particularly in the area of the diminutive ‘-ette’. The most well-known diminutive form that emerged during the conflict was ‘munitionette’, which owed a lot to the form ‘suffragette’, both in the model of the word and the sense of women taking some power in society. But Lynda Mugglestone points out the link made in this suffix between the female and the sense of the ‘less’ or the ‘imitation’; by 1918 people in Britain were familiar with a wave of imitation fabrics which had been characterised by names that carried both these senses – ‘leatherette’ from 1880, ‘silkette’ and ‘moirette’ from 1895, and ‘suedette’ from 1915. Popular journalism extended the belittling power of ‘ette’ to create some startling neologisms: Woman’s Weekly in autumn 1914 ran a page of ‘Husbands’ Storyettes’, while a writer to the Derby Daily Telegraph criticised an editorial by calling it a ‘leaderette’, and Punch on 14 April 1915 described the German Crown Prince’s daughter as a ‘burglarette’. Reaction to the women’s suffragist movement had in 1913 and 1914 given rise to the terms ‘arsonette’ and even ‘hungerette’, which provided in turn a model for the ‘munitionettes’ and a number of other terms, including ‘peacettes’, ‘farmerettes’ and ‘canteenettes’.
The source for this construction is of course French, which during the war provided English-speaking soldiers with other terms ending with ‘–ette’: ‘flechette’, the heavy dart dropped from planes in the early part of the conflict, and the ‘omelette’ (in the estaminet). Already there were also the sniper’s favourite – the silhouette above the parapet, the French officers’ epaulette, and the French destroyer Escopette (built 1900). Henri Barbusse in Le Feu (1916), translated as Under Fire, makes frequent use of ‘banquette de tir’ (shooting step), ‘musette’ (haversack), and ‘fourchette’, a slang term for bayonet (similar to pig-sticker). Olivier Leroy’s A Glossary of French Slang (1922) also has ‘arbalète’ for a rifle.
‘-Ette’ would normally be recognised as feminine in French (again the link between feminine gender and diminution), but, after ‘cigarette’, the most outstanding ‘-ette’ word from the First World War has to be the bayonet, ‘baïonnette’ in French. Much fetishised in French civilian wartime popular culture, the bayonet was given the name ‘Rosalie’ in an erotic song by Theodore Botrel, written in 1914. One verse chosen, not entirely at random, reads:
Mais elle est irrésistible
Quand elle surgit, terrible,
– Verse à boire ! –
Toute nue : baïonnette… on !
Buvons donc !
But she is irresistible
When she arises, terrible,
“Pour and drink!” –
All naked: bayonet … one!
According to Barbusse the poilus did not rate the term ‘Rosalie’ highly, Fitzwater Wray’s 1917 translation stating that it was a phrase for ‘padded luneys’. Eric Partridge, however, felt that the French soldiers came round to it in the end.
But, taking the story back further, the bayonet was originally a female weapon, and an empowering one too, at least according to one source. The siege of Bayonne in 1130-31 may have been the origin of this term (see picture), though the word is not known in English before the end of the 16th century; Brachet and Dussouchet’s 1873 An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language trans Kitchin (1873) does not offer a date, but confirms Bayonne as the origin. The caption to the picture states clearly that this was a women’s weapon – this is from an issue of the French wartime magazine La Baïonnette (29 June 1916) dedicated to … Rosalie. It states that the ‘Bayonnette’ was a simple knife fixed to a shaft, with which the women of Bayonne defended their city.