Class and Leaf

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918, is a book that could be read at one sitting, admittedly a long one; reading it this way would maximise the wrench, the hardness, the loss of the rural paradise that is the loss of youth, which itself is only afterwards realised as a loss more inevitable and more perennial than that which the war brought. Thoroughly recommended, particularly as a reading of class. In February 1916 Stephen Hewett wrote home that in his battalion ‘the officers happen to be gentlemen, which robs the life out here of the only terrors it ever had for me’, an indication of the strength of class distinction at the time; Victoria Glendinning, in her preface to the 1980 edition of The Return of the Soldier, writes that ‘social snobbery is too flimsy a term for what they [the Baldry family] feel. Sexual jealousy and tribal instinct combine into hatred.’ Hatred driven by fear, a fear of contamination, as Jenny shrinks from Margaret’s ‘clothes so coarse against the fine upholstery’ of the Baldrys’ car (p101), and ‘the rubbed surface of her’ (p118); ‘it would have been such agony to the finger tips to touch any part of her apparel’ (p99). Difficult to find any empathy there, but Jenny comes to be embraced within the gentle physicality of Margaret’s simple contact with Chris. A good read, one undertaken originally to see whether West had employed any slang terms in the speech of the very wealthy, to which the answer is fairly negative. Chris talks about the fighting at the Front as a ‘scrim’, from ‘scrimmage’, now ‘scrummage’ or ‘scrum’, and only under the extreme stress of granting her husband permission to see his former love, shell-shock having rendered him amnesiac, does Chris’s wife Kitty snap and say ‘He’s well enough to remember her all right’ (p65) – ‘all right’ working both as meaning ‘well enough’ and as an emphatic. Elsewhere her ambiguity easily slips unnoticed:

“How do you do, Mrs Grey?” she said suddenly, shaking out her cordiality as one shakes out a fan. “It’s very kind of you to come. Won’t you go upstairs and take off your things?”

“No, thank you,” answered Margaret shyly, “I shall have to go away so soon.”

“Ah, do!” begged Margaret prettily.       (p155)


West’s portrayal of the tightly controlled speech of the wealthy, like their geographical boundaries and their clothes, repays a multi-layered reading.


The weather playing its part in making this the reading season, The Return of the Soldier sped fast after Taffrail’s A Little Ship, in which there was one usage be further explored: ‘leaf’ for ‘leave’ (p227, 1918 edn).


This term appears at first to be more navy than army slang (Rick Jolly’s Jackspeak describes it as ‘once the common pronunciation for leave used by Jack’); Taffrail uses it also in Pincher Martin (1916), though Bartimeus is less enthusiastic – this from The Long Trick (1917), in a colloquial context:

Standish nodded. “Thanks—whoa! Yes, I got a couple of ‘cushy’ wounds and three months’ leave.”

The OED’s first citation, from Punch in 1846, is army – ‘The shabby Capting (who seames to git leaf from his ridgmint whenhever he likes)’, and mock-posh. And Henry Williamson in The Patriot’s Progress (1930, p20) has ‘leave (or its remoteness) which they now called “leaf”.’ (Included here one of William Kermode’s wonderful linocuts from that book.)

Kermode Williams linocut

Partridge gives it as ‘naval (late C. 19-20), by 1914, military’, and quotes Fraser and Gibbons, who claim it as ‘universal in the navy and taken up also in the other Services’. H Lonsdale, in a letter published in The Athenaeum 25 July 1919, wrote that ‘“leaf” is not much used by men of the New Armies’, this being included in a list of terms labelled as ‘The legacy of the old Regular Army’. Later that year (29 August) he extended the usage ‘“Sweating” for “leaf”, looking forward to, anticipating going on leave. “Leaf” has nothing to do with “leave”. The origin of the word is the “leaf” or “page” of the leave-book – the “leaf” (page) being torn at the perforation and given to the soldier granted his pass or furlough.’  Fraser and Gibbons nod to this in their entry (‘it has been suggested that …’).


The OED proposes the etymology as ‘a colloquial or nonstandard pronunciation’; but the transcription of mock-posh developing into general usage is an attractive conjecture, and mock-posh English, with regimental sergeant-major and music hall compere connotations, is an under-researched area (hunless anyone appens to know of any work in this hairriar?).



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