Word-book of the English tongue, 1917

On 2 January 1915 the Home Circle magazine carried a story that Princess Mary had suggested that ‘the study of the German tongue might be dropped, and based her petition on the grounds that German characters and needlework together are bad for the eyesight’. While this was a very specific reason for not studying German, it matched a widespread view. The editor suggested that German ‘is quite likely to become one of the dead languages before very long, [and] it is now quite out of favour’. Language study and use was a subject of social propaganda from early in the war – as early as October 1914 a journalist in The Cheltenham Looker-On was proposing that the study of German in schools should be dropped in favour of Spanish or Italian, as ‘the German is characteristic of the German race, and we feel we do not want to be reminded of the existence of that race’. This antagonistic attitude towards the language of a nation’s enemies was not limited to the Allies; the Penny War Weekly reported in January 1915 that ‘French words hitherto in use in the Turkish language will be replaced by German words. Henceforth Turks will say herr, frau, fräulein, freiherr, graf, ritter, fürst, grostfürs (grand duke), erzherzog (archduke), and use other German words the need of which may be felt. Instruction in German is already obligatory in the Turkish schools, where until now French has been taught’. The editor presumably had his tongue in his cheek when proposing that ‘grostfürs’ might be a word ‘the need of which may be felt’, but the nouns are notably not given initial capital letters. The Frankfurter Zeitung called on German citizens to ‘root out the language of our enemies from public signs and notices’ (Liverpool Daily Post, 15 November 1915), and the Austrian authorities in Trent, Trieste and Zara banned the use of Italian in public notices, street signs and newspapers (Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 September 1916). German remained out of favour among the allied nations throughout the war, and in 1917, after what appeared to some to be a rather long wait, the royal family dropped its German names in favour of ‘Windsor’ and ‘Mountbatten’. In December 1917 James Crichton-Browne, a pioneer in the field of mental illness who had supplied research material to Darwin, was reported as believing that a proposal in 1917 to establish a chair of German language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh was ‘inopportune, unpatriotic and discreditable’.

In this environment there appeared in The Welsh Outlook for August 1917 a review of a book which sought to further manipulate language: A Word-book of the English Tongue, by ‘C.L.D.’, published by George Routledge & Sons, set out to bring comfort to the ‘many who feel not a little ashamed of the needless loan-words in which their speech is clothed, and of the borrowed feathers in which they strut’. The book takes ‘a few thousand stock loan-words’, and offers in their place not synonyms, but ‘other good English words, which may stand in their stead’. Here however, the offending words are not Germanic but French. C.L.D. goes through some contortions to justify the use of words which have arrived in English from Latin by way of ‘Teutonic’, which he defines as ‘not only High and Low Dutch, but also the Scandinavian tongues’. Words ‘borrowed by the French from their Teutonic neighbours’ fall into two categories, those which are ‘glaringly French … and set on the forbidden list’, such as ‘embankment’ and ‘remark’, and those ‘far fewer words which bear on them the stamp of their birth and might even now be mistaken for Teutonic thoroughbreds’, such as ‘strive’. C.L.D. asks his readers to not ‘lose heart’ if the looked for word does not appear, but to follow through the links to other loanwords, and to be creative, ‘tacking on to the English words the olden endings’ (-en, -ing, -ish, -ness, etc) so that ‘new words may be made at will’, a generosity that contrasts with his animosity towards French.




While this was in effect another attempt to rid English of ‘the Norman yoke which lies so heavy’, and part of a strain of linguistic purism whose most well-known practitioner in English was William Barnes (notably of the proposal of ‘folkwain’ for bus), its content and context make it noteworthy. Dictionaries, being descriptive, tended to lag behind the topical interest in new words and definitions that were regularly disseminated in newspapers during the war, but C.L.D.’s book came out in 1917, at a time when the war seemed to be a permanent fixture – Samuel Hynes described it as appearing to be continuing under its own momentum; there was an article in a children’s magazine in November that imagined the war lasting until 1957 (The Little Paper, November 1917). The Word-book does have a few references to the war – ‘souvenir’ leads us to ‘memento’ and thus to ‘keepsake’; ‘bombard(ment)’ to ‘shell(fire)’; ‘armistice’ to ‘truce’. But there is no ‘barrage’, ‘cannonade’, ‘submarine’, ‘aeroplane’, ‘general’, ‘officer’, ‘sergeant’, ‘admiral’, ‘camouflage’, ‘casualty’, ‘mortar’, ‘artillery’, ‘uniform’, ‘rifle’, ‘parapet’, ‘parados’, or ‘bullet’, at a time when these were part of daily life at first or second hand. And some of the offered alternatives grate, for various reasons: ‘soldier’, ‘trench’, ‘battle’, ‘mine’ and ‘push’ are so fixed in our minds that the suggestions of ‘fighter/fighting-man’, ‘ditch/dike (or dyke)/furrow’, ‘fight/scrap/scuffle’, ‘bore’ and ‘elbow/hustle’ are not right for the context of the First World War. ‘Cold steel’ for ‘bayonet’ stands out as a curiously pertinent reference to popular language, but the writer seems to be standing back from the most obvious context of his writing.

There are some rather pointless (that is ‘unneedful’) delatinisations – ‘transmarine’, ‘tomentose’, ‘ophioglossum’,  and ‘sagittate’ – unlikely to have troubled the readers of say The Penny War Weekly, for which C.L.D. gives the alternatives ‘oversea’, ‘woolly’, ‘adder’s tongue’ and ‘arrow-headed’. There are many that go some way to justifying his argument: ‘underwrite’ for ‘insure’, ‘alight upon’ for ‘discover’, ‘sham’ for ‘pseudo’, ‘horseman’ for ‘cavalry’, ‘bloodbath/slaughter’ for ‘carnage’. But too often he slips into the heroic wordhoard of Anglo-Saxonisms, often misleading, sometimes downright wrong: ‘eleventh month’ for ‘November’, ‘inbreathe’ for ‘instil’, ‘heartburning’ for ‘discontent’, ‘byspell’ for ‘proverb’, ‘health-lore’ for ‘hygiene’, ‘weapon-show’ for ‘parade’, ‘burning-glass’ for ‘lens’, ‘thewy’ for ‘muscular’, and ‘good man’ for ‘proprietor’.

Some reviews of the book were generally complimentary if not enthusiastic: the Belfast News-letter 12 October 1917 said that it ‘will be most useful for reference’, while the Army and Navy Gazette 13 October 1917 described it as ‘an interesting study’. The publisher’s own selection of reviews offered stronger views: ‘we heartily commend this ‘Word-book’, … so ingeniously compiled … to all writers and speakers’ (Literary World); ‘Happily the work of saving or purifying English speech is not wholly neglected. We have some token of this in a little book which has just been issued’ (W.H.K. in The Tablet); ‘Never use a Latin word when you can se an English one is a perfectly sound doctrine’ (Times Educational Supplement); ‘An admirable aid to the memory’ (The Globe, perhaps missing the point).

There are a number of curiosities about this publication. Firstly, C.L.D. was Charles Louis Dessoulavy, a Catholic priest and educator, who also wrote under the name Luigi Cappadelta; what if anything in his own personal context influenced his approach? His world-view of etymology seems pretty limited, though that may be because of this particular argument; but there is no mention of Arabic or Persian or any Indian languages, nor even of Greek, Spanish or Italian.

Secondly, his favouring of Germanic words over words deriving from French and Latin was published at a time of widespread, and indeed scholarly, denunciation of German; would this text have raised anything more than a patronising smile with any philologists among Britain’s allies, or was the language purification movement so widespread that linguistic isolationism was prepared to ignore international alliances where it suited? There seems to have been no awareness in any of the reviews of the paradox that Dessoulavy was attacking French and promoting Germanic linguistic culture – the word ‘Tuetonic’ was widely used to describe German cruelty, militarism and views of racial superiority. More study is needed on the ramifications of linguistic purification during the war.

Thirdly, Dessoulavy does not address the reality of etymology, association and status in English lexis: ‘heartburning’ is physical while ‘discontent’ is emotional, the difference between a ‘battle’ and a ‘fight’ is one of kind as well as degree, and the Latin-French term ‘machine’ carries different connotations from ‘gear/tackle’. The great failure of linguistic purification is its weakening and impoverishing of any language; English is the stronger for having both ‘curious’ and ‘foxy’, ‘horrible’ and ‘grim’, ‘obstinate’ and ‘dogged’. Reviews of the book highlight the anachronism: is Dessoulavy offering ‘purely Saxon words that may … be used, not as equivalents of Latin ones, but to frame sentences that can be, with ingenuity, made to convey pretty much the same meaning’ (The Author), or is ‘every word of foreign origin … banished for its true English equivalent’ (Cambridge Magazine); is the approach augmenting or diminishing the language? Dessoulavy’s own words rather tend toward the second approach: ‘I have striven to set by the side of each [loanword], not indeed “synonyms”, but other good English words, which may stand in their stead’. Nevertheless, language will always double-bluff the unwary: ‘Dessoulavy’s ‘unfriend’ for ‘enemy’ has a new home in the social media of the twenty-first century.

It would be interesting to know what any sailors, gainstanders (soldiers) or skymen (airmen), perhaps readers of the Fighting-man Crowd and Fleet Tellings (Army and Navy Gazette), thought of this. Dessalouvy no doubt considered himself homelandish (patriotic) and goodthoughted (well-intentioned), and his approach is bookwormish (scholarly) and handy (ingenious); ultimately though the task is cranky (eccentric) and cloudlandish (utopian), and a foxiness of doings (a curiosity of history).



2nd December (2-4), a panel discussion on the context of the trauma of the war, its effects and treatments, at the Museum of the Mind, Croydon; with Professor Christine Hallett, Dr Jane Potter and Julian Walker. http://museumofthemind.org.uk/whats-on/event-info/expert-panel-they-never-spoke-about-it

Call for papers, Languages and the First World War conference, September 2018, still open, see below https://languagesandthefirstworldwar.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/call-for-papers-languages-and-the-first-world-war-2-conference-2018/

Words and the First World War, by Julian Walker, published by Bloomsbury, advanced discount purchase: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/words-and-the-first-world-war-9781350001923/




One thought on “Word-book of the English tongue, 1917”

  1. It is noteworthy that Australian adoption of foreign words after Gallipoli and after the war favoured French rather than German words. Jonathon Green sends this text:
    1919 “Sunday Times” (Perth) 9 Mar 7/3 He [i.e. the Aussie ex-soldier] hasn’t condescended to accept any colloquial contributions from Germany worth speaking about, the only two words I can recollect being ‘zwei (two),’ pronounced ‘swi,’ and ‘strafe’ He has grown to regard anything coming out of Boschland as questionable to say the very least, and extends his veto even to their lingo.

    In “Languages and the First World War: Remembrance and Memory” – ‘‘Aussie’: code-switching in an Australian soldiers’ magazine – an overview’ Véronique Duché and Diane de Saint Léger write:
    In the post-war Australian issues, the only “diggerese” words found in these issues were compry, compree (6) and estaminet (5). One occurrence of poilus (i.e. the French ‘digger’) was counted, and one diggares, the French pronunciation for digger. However these words are found in texts related to the experience of war, and with characters such as “two inebriated Diggers” (April 1927, issue 98) or “French civilians and Australian soldiers” (April 21, issue 26). The use of French loan words is otherwise mainly related to fashion, food and gastronomy (words such as chic (16), crepe (4), georgette (2), chantilly (1), champagne (1), pate de foie gras (1) and so on).

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