Narpoo again

Certain French terms appear again and again in soldiers’ phrasebooks: beaucoups, du pain, jambon, and so on reflect what the pre-war traveller encountered a need for, and which it was supposed would be the core concepts of the soldiers’ conversations with locals in France. Their transcriptions tell us as much about the accents of urban England, notably the assumption of ubiquity of the London accent that by 1914 had spread along railway lines to influence much of spoken English: buckoo, ler pang, ler jam-bong.


Two transcriptions which to date have not been found in any soldiers’ dictionary are deeply illustrative of the soldiers’ experience in France – sanfairyann and napoo/narpoo. Fraser and Gibbons refer to ‘sanfairyann’ as a ‘wilful perversion’ of ça ne fait rien, and napoo as ‘applied universally to anybody or anything’, deriving from il n’y a plus [or il n’y en a plus]. Their absence from the phrasebook record indicates that they were soldier inventions, drawn from experience – a little imagination produces the sigh of recognition and the shrugged shoulders. Yet there is a difference between them: napoo/narpoo changes its meaning and is applied to situations beyond the estaminet-keeper’s response, and shows how embedded the term became in the experience of the war, to both soldiers and civilians; while sanfairyann stays pretty constant. The spellings of ‘napoo’ and ‘narpoo’ show different pronunciations, the second nearer to the French; there is a rare variant ‘nah poo’ (found so far in The Comet, a troopship magazine, in January 1917), but the form remains pretty constant. ‘Sanfairyann’, though on paper looking bewildering, is a rather good transcription of the French, allowing for some latitude in the middle vowel; but its developments are indicative of how wordplay uses rhyme and alliteration – Fraser and Gibbons give ‘Sometimes also Aunt Mary Ann!’ and Brophy and Partridge transcribe it as three separate words with an abbreviation and an extension:




Some of the applications of ‘napoo’ can be found in Words and the First World War, but its etymology is neatly summed up in a footnote to A Day of Peace, one of the war stories of ‘Sapper’ (H C McNeile):


Sapper napoo


The current programme for this year’s LFWW conference is as follows:


Europe House, London, Mon 10 September

9 – 9.15 Introduction
9.15 – 10.45 Session 1 – (post-war considerations)

·       Mark Connelly, Professor of History, University of Kent – The language of memorials

·       Lucinda Borket-Jones, Open University – Warring tongues: ‘Kultur’ versus ‘culture’ in writing of the First World War (Ford Madox Ford)

·       Ugo Pavan Dala Torre, independent scholar – The language of the Italian disabled ex-servicemen

10.45 – 11 Coffee break
11.00 – 12.30 Session 2   (Language and identity)

·      Keynote     Amanda Laugesen, Director, Australian National Dictionary Centre – War words and the evolution of Australian remembrance of the Great War, 1919-1939

·       Julia Ribeiro, Université Paris Nanterre – The choice of poetic language and the establishment of identities and communities in the First World War

·       Mādālina Serbov – The Lipoveni community in the Danube Delta

·       Fiona Houston, University of Aberdeen– Lexical development of the word ‘propaganda’

12.30 – 13.15 lunch
13.15 – 14.45 Session 3  (Violent language)

·       Chris Kempshall, University of Sussex – Insults between the entente powers at the end of the war

·       Gegely Bodok, Clio Institute, Budapest – Laughed Death – Humour and jokes in Hungary during the First World War

·       Jonathon Green, independent scholar – Swearing in T E Lawrence’s The Mint

14.45 – 15.00 Coffee
15 – 16.30 Session 4  (Language and literature)

·       Cristina Rogojina, University Ovidius of Constanta, Romania – Romanian writers who fought in World War 1 and how the war influenced their writing

·       Dr Helen Brooks, University of Kent – Horror on the London Stage: The Grand Guignol Season of 1915

·       Professor Nevena Dakovic, Dept. of History and Theory, FDA/UoA, Belgrade  – Multimedia language of the great war: Stanislav Krakov

16.30 – 16.45 Coffee
16.45 – 18.15 Session 5 (Away from the trenches)

·       Dr Anne Samson, The Great War in Africa Association – Language in the East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918

·       Guido Latré, Professor of English Literature and Culture, Louvain-la-Neuve – Languages and cultures in Van Walleghem’s war diaries

·       Meic Birtwistle, independent scholar – Welsh impromptu songs for soldiers on leave



KU Leuven, Brussels Campus, Weds, 12 September

9.15 – 9.30 Introduction
9.30 – 10.25 Keynote

Marguerite Helmers, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh – The rhetoric of avoidance

10.30 -10.45 coffee
10.45 – 12.15 Session 1  (Language to language)

·       Gwendal Piégais – Russian interpreters operating in France during the war

·       Luc Vandeweyer, Belgian National Archives – The role of the language border in Belgium in the expansionist plans of the German occupier

·       Stefano Banno, University of Trento – Italian in the Berliner Lautarchiv

Lunch ·       Signalling in the First World War – Vintage signals team demonstration

·       Iaroslav Golubinov, independent scholar – Slang words for food in 1917 Russia – video presentation

1.15 – 2.10 Keynote

Alison Fell, Professor of French Cultural History, University of Leeds – Culture clashes: Belgian refugees in Yorkshire

2.10 – 3.40 Session 2  (Voices of calm)

·       Miguel Brandão, Faculty of Arts of Porto – Humour in Portuguese newspapers  (1914-1918) – what could war-related humour tell us about the Great War?

·       Dr Sarah Duncan, independent scholar – ‘Dear Little Scalliwag’:  Letters from a father to his children, 1915-16

3.45 – 4.00 coffee
4.00 – 5.00 Session 3 (Voices of contention)

·       Fabian van Samang, senior editor of the ‘Journal of the League for Human Rights’ – Armenia and the language of genocide

·       Harun Buljina, Columbia University – Bosnia’s Polyglot Pan-Islamists between Empire and Nation State, 1914-1920


5.00 – 5.10 Final break
5.10 – 6.10 Session 4     (Hope and resolution)

·       Javier Alcalde, University of Barcelona – Esperanto during the First World War

·       Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums & Galleries – Museums, languages & commemoration: a case study from Leeds




Booking can now be done for the two days separately via:

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