Shop talk

In Language and Class in Victorian Britain (1985) K C Philips discusses the need for successful tradesmen who aspired to genteel society to leave behind the language of commerce. Easier to recognise than define, the social use of phrases such as ‘as per yours of …’ mark the shifting of business formality to social formality, with results that locate the speaker in the world of trade. Philips quotes Trollope’s Ralph the Heir (1869), in which an invitation to dinner is about to be sent with the timing specified as ‘five sharp’ – the objection is that this phrase ‘savoured of commerce’ as Philips puts it, and thus it marks the speaker as clearly a tradesman. The fact that the invitation begins ‘Mr and Mrs Neefits compliments to Mr Newton, and hope he will do them the honour to dine with them on Sunday …’ shows a language that can be placed clearly in time as well as in a context which mixes commerce and society.


The formulas of the language of commerce, law and banking occasionally turn up in soldiers’ correspondence, but are less noted than terms from sport, hunting, or occasional use of Biblical phrases for coded information about the soldier’s location. This postcard, dated 1917, starts with a nice formula which would have been written in offices up and down the country thousands of times a day. The writer, Pte G Downie, is clearly miffed about a less official bit of business. References by soldiers to machine guns as typewriters, as well as the use of military metaphors in commercial advertising, indicate a robust middle class language transference of language between the world of the office and the trenches. Woman At Home magazine (January 1915) carried an advertisement for the Smith Premier Adding and Subtracting Typewriter: ‘The Allied Forces of the victorious Smith Premier quickly clear the ground of all arrears of work’.


Commerce was not a sideshow in the war. The Birmingham Gazette, 2 October 1915, reported on an article in the Hamburger Fremdenblatt  in which the ‘German Clerks’ Association’ observed that the pursuance of foreign trade in English had ‘helped the English to extend their position in the world’. By demanding that German foreign trade be carried on in German ‘we can damage the English enormously, because the greater part of their usurped importance in the world would collapse’. While this may have been an attempt to highlight a futile attempt to manage language, it did also indicate the importance of commercial language. While commercial metaphors may have been less exciting than the inventiveness of ’Ole Bill and his comrades in arms, they remind us that for the first two years of the war the Pals Battalions included thousands of middle class young men from offices, with speech patterns that were polite, formal and, where necessary, deferential.

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