For the Christmas tree

Season’s greetings to our readers, visitors, followers and all. This week we give you a few bonbons, crackers, gifts, whatever, to bring, we hope, a smile.


First, Karl Bergmann’s Wie der Feldgraue Spricht (1916) includes the observation that German soldiers had the same term as the British for French soldiers; while for Brits the term was ‘parley-voo’, for the Germans it was ‘parlewuh’, different spelling but practically the same pronunciation. It is always good to get evidence of such things, and here it is, from Knetschke Nr.2 by Georg Mühlen-Schulte, a satirical book of letters written as if from a soldier to his sweetheart; published in 1917, it shows the use of the word, alongside other Germanisations of French to match English attempts at French pronunciation – ‘Pardong Mosjöh’ and ‘Bong Mosjöh’.


Next, a couple of excerpts from Words and the First World War, which will be officially available from 28th December:


A soldier sent a postcard home to M. Wilson in Peterborough on 1 October 1914 with the words ‘Au revoir mon cher maman, Bert’, his eagerness to use French not hampered by correct word-endings. John Masefield describes his voyage to France: ‘everyone was sick but myself, spuage universal, so to speak . . .’. is practice is to be found in diaries as well: Cpl R. D. Doughty writes in his diary for 11th October 1916, ‘Gun Officer all day. Nothing much doing only trying to forget London. Tres Bon, I don’t think. On duty tonight.’ Walter Shuttleworth wrote on 22 August 1917, ‘Letter from Nellie Mason makes absurd statement that I write tales of woe. Trés [sic] fâché’, and Bombardier Spires wrote, ‘Haslers and I regularly visit the ‘Au Nouveau’ estaminet as the ale is not so bad and the oeufs were certainly good.’ The Pow-Wow 26 February 1915 has a pastiche of the Arabian Nights titled ‘Un Petit More-So’; the war environment was renewing a practice of dropping French words and phrases into English that has been a regular practice for over a thousand years.

In this environment of French being the primary ‘other language’ it was natural that French should be used as a lingua franca. 2nd Lt Cyril Drummond reported that during the Christmas truce in 1914 the conversation between Irish and German soldiers was in French, and Cpl A. E. Lee had a conversation with a wounded Bavarian sergeant in no man’s land – ‘we had a good old chat in schoolboy French’. French was the standard lingua franca in communication with the Turkish army, but a French/English mix was more common for the British army’s communications in France and Flanders – R. H. Mottram describes an elderly woman in Poperinghe saying ‘Monsieur, est-ce bombarde soon finish?’ The process of French people speaking English to arriving troops began at the port towns. Donald McNair reported residents of Cherbourg picking up and shouting the appropriate response to ‘Are we downhearted?’, and Lt Cecil Down reported ‘the Franco- Belgian woman’s war cry “Chocolat, good for English soldiers”’. French and Belgian children were often noted as picking up English: Graves documented children pimping their older sisters at Cherbourg, Douie heard children at Etaples selling ‘three apples – une pennee’, and A. M. Burrage remembered a small boy near Bavincourt selling newspapers shouting ‘Bloody good news for the Ingleese!’ Frequently, as here, the documentation shows transcribed accents, usually indicating that the accented English was understood: Henry Williamson describes French boys begging in English, saying ‘biskeets and booly biff ’, and a postcard in the series ‘Sketches of Tommy’s Life’ by Fergus Mackain shows French children shouting ‘Orangeez! Ah-pools! Shock-o-la!’ Adults’ speech is transcribed too, and taboo terms were of especial interest: Bombardier Spires noted in his diary that as he had lost his cap and had to wear his helmet, the local estaminet proprietor insisted on calling him ‘“M le Pisspot”’. Harold Harvey describes a local Frenchman saying, ‘Vat your vife say if she see you in ze water?’ British advertising copywriters naturally made use of this, regularly employing ‘ze’ for ‘the’, or extending the idea into applying recognisably French syntax to English, as in the Army Club cigarette advertisement, in which the ‘Sous Lieutenant Aviateur’ says ‘But since I am arrive here . . . I essay the golden tobacco of the English’: its counterpart lies in a British nurse saying to a French soldier,‘Tasy vous toot sweet or je vous donnerai la colleek’.



In studying the record of language during the conflict it is noticeable that considerably less attention was paid to language in the Navy and the Air Force. Fewer words moved from the naval experience to the Home Front and to the Army, though naval glossaries were printed in the press. Possible reasons are the lower numbers of personnel involved, their having less contact with the civilian population, and the traditional way that naval staff tended to live in or near port towns. Much naval terminology or slang, some of it very old, stayed within the Navy, e.g. ‘bracketing’ for range-finding by firing; ‘bloke’ for captain; ‘neaters’ for rum; ‘ord’ for Ordinary Seaman’; ‘snottie’ for midshipman; or indicated exclusion of the non-naval world, e.g. ‘soldier’ for an incompetent sailor – a ‘soldier’s wind’ was, according to Fraser and Gibbons, an easy wind that anyone could sail in. In a sample from Fraser and Gibbons comprising 25 per cent of the whole (pp. 90–170,‘ever since Adam was an oakum boy’ to ‘Ally Sloper’s Cavalry’) there are 696 entries, of which seventy-one are specified as naval and twenty-two as air force terms. Few naval terms have survived to the present in general speech: among them are ‘sweet Fanny Adams’, ‘a flap’, ‘a gadget’, ‘show a leg’, and ‘do you want jam on it?’, of which only ‘a flap’ originated during the war, as one of three stages of getting ready quickly – a buzz, a flap, and a panic – and most of them are seldom documented (for example ‘gashions’, meaning ‘an excess of anything’, ‘Jimmy the One’, denoting ‘the First Lieutenant on board ship’ and ‘Monkey’s Island’, meaning ‘the upper bridge of a warship’). In contrast to army slang, a few terms from naval slang entered common civilian speech without being recognised as such – ‘pongo’ for soldier, ‘pond’ for sea – while others were taken up by soldiers and after 1918 were more thought of as soldiers’ terms: ‘bully-beef’, ‘gadget’, ‘jam on it’, ‘flag- wagging’. ‘Erk’, originally a below decks term for a navy rating, was taken up by the air force as slang for a mechanic, and was retained into the Second World War. Given the horrific nature of actual sea-warfare it is strange that fewer imaginative or cynical terms were documented: ‘survivor’s leave’ was the term used by a sailor to describe his time ashore after being torpedoed. In four wartime newspaper articles on Naval slang only the last gives terms which were specific to the experience of the war – ‘hostilities’ for men who signed up for the duration, and ‘distasters’ for Royal Naval Divisions. Boyd Cable, a soldier-writer, used the term ‘jaunties’ to describe the Royal Naval Brigade, as recorded by Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, but he stated that he had not seen it anywhere other than in Cable’s The Old Contemptibles (1919). While much slang was shared between the army and the air force – ‘sausages’, ‘archie’, ‘wind up’ (and Boyd Cable, an infantryman, was probably the first to use in print the term ‘dog- fight’ for what had previously been an ‘air fight’ or ‘air duel’) – airmen quickly developed their own slang: ‘the British airman is an adept at inventing slang terms’, wrote the Birmingham Gazette, 20 August 1918 (p. 2). Partridge noted in his Dictionary of R.A.F. Slang (1945) that the Second World War RAF was still using a few words from the period 1914 to 1918, but ‘only or mainly by the men over forty or in new senses’; but in comparing the slangs of the three forces he noted that ‘the richest of all is that of the Army . . . the Navy’s slang, not quite so extensive as that of the Army . . . [and] the Air Force had a small body of slang’. A lot of R F C and R A F slang and particularly American air force slang was imaginative, cynical and long-lasting, though less disseminated to the civilian press at the time. Ernest Baker, initiating the correspondence on slang in The Athenaeum, mentioned a few terms of ‘what may be called “air-lingo”’ – ‘bank’ (to shell), ‘zoom’, ‘huff’ (kill), and ‘hickboo’ (air-raid), with the pre-war ‘bus’ for plane; elsewhere in the correspondence only Eric Verney mentioned ‘interesting Air-Force slang’, specifically ‘quirk’ and ‘spike-bozzle’ (‘quirk’ was an inexperienced airman, and ‘spike-bozzle’ meant to destroy completely), as well as ‘bus’, ‘drome’ and ‘joy-stick’. Fraser and Gibbons dedicated considerable space to air force slang, with terms such as ‘conked out’, ‘comic business’, ‘tabloid’ (a Sopwith plane with many good points, so concentrated goodness), ‘parasol’ (a monoplane, with wings above the pilot), many of which were taken up by Brophy and Partridge; but in his Slang To-day and Yesterday Partridge dedicated less than half a page to RAF slang.


And what so many children hoped for at Christmas. This comes from The Infants’ Magazine 1916.

Infants' Magazine 1917 our dear daddy from the front




A couple of knuts for the fruit bowl (our walnuts used to be dusted off and brought out every year):



And a positively frightful joke for your cracker, from the Fifth Gloucester Gazette:

  1. What is the difference between a 5th Gloucester and the Kaiser?
  2. One makes Will ill, the other ill will.

Oh dear. Happy Christmas, and may we raise a glass to readers everywhere. Cheero!





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