A Dictionary of Military Terms, 1918

E S Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms is a curious creation. Dated 15 May 1918, its preface states that ‘The science of warfare has progressed so rapidly since July, 1914, and so many specialized terms have been transplanted from European soil, that the usual type of reference work is inadequate. It must be supplemented with something more technical.’ Yet a brief thumb through its pages indicates a book that embraces a vast potential readership, ranging from officers destined for the trenches to historians of India and students of Thucydides and Caesar. Edward Farrow (1855-1926), from the title page, was ‘late Assistant Instructor of Tactics’ at West Point, and he dedicated the book to ‘the class of 1876’, who were presumably his own colleagues on graduation; he was also the author of Mountain scouting: a hand-book for officers and soldiers on the frontiers (1881) and Farrow’s military encyclopedia : a dictionary of military knowledge (1885). Farrow’s research and writing was extensive – the three-volume military encyclopedia runs to well over two thousand pages, encompasses military items and anecdotes from all ages of world history, and indicates an enjoyment of language, and occasional dry wit. We see, for example:

Poltroon – a coward; a dastard; one who has no courage.

with an offer of three possible etymologies,

Harsegaye – a kind of demi-lance, introduced about 1114. It is now obsolete.


Pibroch – Music played on the bagpipe, which has a wonderful power in exciting the martial instincts and hilarity of the Highlanders. Its rhythm is so irregular, and its notes in the quicker parts so much jumbled together, that a stranger has difficulty in following the modulations or reconciling his ear to them.


Farrow’s interest in etymology occasionally appears in the Dictionary: Muschite – A local designation applied to the early hand-culverins, and which gave its form to the word mousquet or musket. Blighty – A military slang expression for England, home: a corruption of the Hindustani Biláti. With these interests in mind Farrow’s eclecticism in the Dictionary of Military Terms is not surprising, and though he concentrates here on terms in English, Latin and French, many of the entries cover non-European weapons (Sardar – In the East Indies, a term commonly used signifying a chief or leader) or pre-modern (Primipilar – of or pertaining to the captain of the vanguard of a Roman army). Many of the terms and definitions are arresting, and linguistically informative:

Bat – A kind of pack-saddle; and hence a bat-horse was a baggage-horse bearing a bat or pack, and a bat-man was a servant in charge of the horse and bat.

Leg-wise – In cavalry, said of a horse, when he obeys the lightest correctly combined action of the rider’s legs.

Rebiffer – In the French service, a term meaning to have a soldier-like bearing; the same meaning as brace at the United States Military Academy.


There are familiar slang expressions, such as ‘corduroy road’, ‘tin hat’, ‘ladies from hell’, ‘pom-pom’, ‘grousing’, ‘quarterbloke‘, ‘lance-jack’, ‘scrounger’ (and ‘to jawbone’ = get by talking’), and ‘poilu’, and also some French slang expressions less familiar to non-francophones:

Bleu – The French military slang expression for a young soldier, until after he has passed the school of the platoon.

Chambard – At the École Polytechnique, the act of smashing up the furniture, etc., of new cadets.

And there are terms which are embedded in the experience of the American military, such as ‘Milk Formation – A slang phrase for a battalion or squadron (usually the third) where the companies composing it are I. K. L. M. These letters may be transposed so as to spell Milk.’


Others are questionable, such as:

Ace – the rank given to an airman, when he has destroyed five enemies.

‘Rank’ is maybe not the right word: ‘honorific’ perhaps.

Jeanjean – In the French service, a popular or slang name for a conscript or recruit. (‘Jeanjean’ is translated as  ‘simpleton, ninny’ by Olivier Leroy, A Glossary of French Slang, 1922, but it does not appear in François Dechelette L’Argot des Polilus, 1918, or Albert Dauzat, L’Argot de la Guerre, 1918).

Grivier – In the French army, the popular slang term for a soldier of the line.

This does not appear in Leroy, Dechelette or Dauzat.


Inevitably there are a few, very few, errors – Joe-emma given as a trench mortar (should be ‘toc-emma’) and Josephine for a French 75-milimetre gun (a ‘soixante-quinze’, or Julot, though this was more literary according to Dauzat, as was Josephine for the bayonet). Other entries indicate that some of Farrow’s sources were of doubtful reliability such as Alboche – A slang term of the trenches applied to all countries having German affinities. Fraser and Gibbons propose that ‘Alboche’ was a post-1871 term, applied at first to the people of Alsace – ‘Al-boches’, as it were. Brophy and Partridge do not give it at all, and documentation of it during wartime is very rare. Farrow gives Josephine as ‘A slang term of the trenches signifying a 75-milimeter gun’. In actuality it was the common French term for the bayonet (Dauzat). And Fat Bertha was more commonly ‘Big Bertha’. But against this most slang terms show an up to date knowledge of soldier-speak as it was in 1918:

Fanny – In the parlance of the British soldier, the name given to the women of the F.A.N.Y., or First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

 Dock – A slang term used by soldiers at the front or in the trenches, meaning a  military hospital.

Hairbrush grenade – a racket bomb used to demoralize the enemy, the noise created by its explosion being very great.

Na Pooh – A slang expression used by British soldiers, meaning nothing doing; also, to express the end of anything, as to be na poohed by a shell. A corruption of the French phrase,  “il n’y a plus”. [The spelling is not common though].


There are some interesting specifics:

Jam-pot Bombs – Bombs made on the spot by filling jam tins with shrapnel bullets, scrap iron, powdered glass and grass, etc. [with details of the explosive, detonator and fuse]

Drooping – In artillery, a term applied to the wearing away of the muzzle of smooth-bore guns, especially bronze guns, after long firing.

There are more than a few curiosities too, especially of military officialese:

Disallowances – Deductions made from the military estimates, when the charges against the Public appear incorrect.

Disgarnish – To deprive of troops necessary for defense; to dismantle.

Veteranize – In the United States, to reënlist for service as a soldier.

and some less well-known terms:

Gongwallas – A term commonly applied to the militia in India.

Grubber – The name usually applied to the entrenching implement employed in trench work and to provide any hasty cover.

Hedgehogs – in trench warfare, a temporary protection rolled over the parapet and anchored. These are usually made of iron.

Tommy Atkins – A familiar term given by soldiers of the British army to their pocket-ledger or small account book.


The technicality of some terms would be beyond the lay-person:

Washout – In aëronautics, the difference between angles of incidence of almost separate aërofoils, distinguished from the decalage in that with the washout the comparative degrees are formed on the same plane surface. [Good luck with this: more simply, the ‘washout’ is the angle at which the air comes off the surface of the plane, as opposed to the ‘wash-in’, the angle at which it is received on the surface]


Farrow’s selection, spelling and explanations of British, French and American slang give a slant on an American view of soldiers’ language, some of them coming from American military college slang:

Beast – The slang name given to a new cadet when he first arrives at the United States Military Academy.

Fast animal – A slang term used at the United States Military Academy, meaning a Plebe who puts on airs.

And occasionally the differences between American and British slang are presented:

Over there – A slang term used in America in reference to the European battle-fields in the great war; more especially the Western Front; the same as out there, the slang term used in England.

Found on Math means found deficient in mathematics.

and this is clearly American, rather than British, English.

Cootie – A slang term, in the camps and trenches, for louse.

has disappeared in British English, but is still in use in America.


The passage of time inevitably creates peculiarities:

Savate – A sort of punishment given a soldier, in the French army, by his comrades (really a severe spanking). The term also means the French system of boxing. [From the salacious magazine Illustrated Bits it is pretty clear that, in Britain at least, ‘spanking’ carried sexual connotations at this time]; and aëroplane is spelt thus throughout – seeing that Farrow also uses the spelling reënlistment, an obsolete pronunciation is indicated.


With all compilations and glossaries, there is a desire to know more. When did the Tolenon (levered arm with a box holding 20 men to shoot over a fortified wall) fall out use? Was there really a Toe Parade (inspection of the feet) twice a week? How did soldiers use hedgehogs? Was there any linguistic problem about the Americans using a Heinrich Aëroplane? Did anybody Bootlick rather than ‘arselick’? Why has the term Thalweg (the line connecting the lowest points of the sections of a valley) not passed from map-reading into general parlance? Was a Tétine (French term for a dent on a cuirass by a rifle bullet) a mark of pride or doom? Why did Richard II prohibit the use of the Lancegay?


As always, what we really need is that on-to-one map of the world over time.







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