Phrasebooks and dictionaries in public awareness

The appearance of soldiers’ letters in newspapers discussing the difficulties of conversing with the local people, as they travelled through northern France, no doubt added to both the speculations surrounding the value of phrasebooks, and to their frequent appearance in a range of articles. Performance entertainment was an environment in which the phrasebook was a generous prop for sketches involving a soldier and a French girl: in the ‘Moulin Rouge Revue’ at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh, reported in the Edinburgh Evening News 7 December 1915, ‘a particularly amusing item is the endeavour of a Highland soldier with an English accent, and a little French milliner, to express through the medium of an inadequate phrase-book, the thoughts that burned within them’. The trope continued through the war: in November 1916 the Western Daily Press reported on a public lecture given in Bristol by Ada Ward, which contained a ‘very funny … description of Tommy with his French phrase-book in his hand, which he rarely referred to, and of his rough-and-ready methods, by pantomime action, etc, to make himself understood by the natives., and especially when making himself “agreeable” to a pretty French girl’. Gaby Deslys, at the New Palace Theatre, as reported in The Manchester Guardian on 24 August 1915, presented a ‘pretty and witty flirtation with the aid of a phrase-book between an English soldier and a Belgian peasant girl’; a curiosity this, as Belgian phrasebooks were rare. They did appear early in the war, as seen in an advertisement in The Manchester Guardian on 12 December 1914, for a Flemish-English & English-Flemish Vest-pocket Dictionary with ‘conversations and idioms’. But communication, especially between young man and young woman, might have to be non-verbal, as laid out in a poem by ‘Bogey’ in London Life 2 January 1915:


In her presence I was overwhelmed with glee:

But perhaps it seems absurd

I could not express a word

In the language of that little refugee.


And she couldn’t speak a line

Of the language that was mine,

Which was very hard on both, you must agree;

But when hearts are fond and young,

Then love doesn’t need a tongue,

As I found out in my little refugee.


The Manchester Guardian advertisement is headlined ‘Converse with our allies the Belgians’. A second book advertised is a Shops and Shopping Phrase Book, in English, French and Flemish. Written by E V Bisschop, this last was possibly of more use to the refugee in Britain than the soldier shopping in Flanders, though the purposes of these and another title seem to be ambiguous. On 7 November 1914 the same paper had carried an advertisement for another English-Flemish Phrase-book (‘the only [English-Flemish Phrase-book] published in this country), which was headlined ‘To help the Belgian refugees you must be able to converse with them in their own language’. However, the book contained ‘a short list of Military Terms in English-Flemish and Flemish-English’, perhaps to enable discussions on the German advance through Belgium. Possibly an enterprising editor had suggested this expansion might make the book attractive to British officers about to head off to Flanders. A ‘companion volume’ is clearly aimed at refugees: Dagelyksche Hulp Voor Belgen in Engeland; the two books could be bought bound in one volume.

Bisschop cover

At least one newspaper, seeing the interest in phrasebooks and dictionaries, decided to publish their own dictionary, for the benefit of ‘many old students of [the French language who are] rubbing up their knowledge’ (Yorkshire Telegraph and Star 27 November 1914) – a comment that indicates that knowledge of some French might not be unusual. The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph in December 1914 advertised its French-English Pronouncing Dictionary, with a letter of approval from Mrs M Greene, who wrote that ‘I sent a “Dictionary” to my nephew (Lc-Corp __, King’s Liverpool Regiment) at the Front. I got a letter to-day. Here is an extract from it :-

“I think the Dictionary one of the most sensible presents that has been sent out. All the men are struck with it, and are writing home for one”.’ With a claim to be ‘the most famous [dictionary] in the army’, a new edition of the book was advertised in December 1916. But not all phrase-books were viewed with approbation at home. A review in the Manchester Courier in March 1915 of Richard Jashke’s English-French Conversational Dictionary stated that it was ‘so much superior to those phrase-books which spring up like mushrooms and as quickly disappear’.


An inevitable but certainly valuable role for a book carried in the vest-pocket of a soldier might be helping the soldier himself from ‘stopping one’; the Ormskirk Advertiser 16 March 1915 carried two such stories. In one case the chaplain of the Shoeburyness garrison told soldiers how an officer’s life had been saved by a Bible (the bullet ‘burned through to the Psalms, from which [the officer’s] father had taken and inscribed in the Bible three protecting texts’). On the same page is the story of ‘Private F Buswell, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was wounded at the front, [who] owes his life to a French dictionary and case of letters he was carrying in his tunic pocket. A bullet penetrated the dictionary and a portion of the letter-case, but Buswell escaped with a slightly wounded chest’. Unfortunately the story does not relate which words in the dictionary impeded the passage of the bullet.


While the environment of interest in words gave rise to observations and anecdotes, the word ‘phrase-book’ itself might be ambiguous. ‘Student’, writing to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in January 1917, pointed out that the pre-war origin of the phrase ‘fog of war’, twelve years before 1914, ‘should be of value to compilers of phrase-books’. Either the term ‘phrase-books’ here has been extended to dictionaries and books on words, of which many were published post-war, or the writer, who had been a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and who had previously noted the pre-war use of ‘manpower’, was suggesting that ‘fog of war’ might find its way into a French-English conversation manual; stranger phrases did appear in phrase-books, usually leftovers from pre-war travel aides. Equally, confusion may have arisen from time to time by the use of the word ‘phrasebook in the sense of ‘code-book’. The Aberdeen Evening Express in August 1915 carried a short article about a mysterious inscription, easily interpreted through re-arrangement of the letters, which could be done by ‘tak[ing] a leaf from the Hun phrase-book’.


A letter quoted in the Sunderland Daily Echo 28 January 1915 is noteworthy in how it details the experience of phrasebook use for shopping behind the Front. The letter, originally published in the Daily Mail, is introduced as being about a Royal Berkshire corporal’s ‘experiences of the “dug-out,” the night operations of sniping, and “Tommy’s” efforts to speak French by the aid of a phrase-book’. The soldier talks about shopping after receiving his pay (‘we were paid out’): ‘Every shop was crowded with lads in khaki, everyone talking a mixture of English, French and Hindu. Nearly everyone carries a book or pamphlet containing English and French sentences, and it is good to see the resigned look on the shopwoman’s face while a customer, red in the face, ties his tongue in a knot and feverishly turns the pages of his book in the vain hope of finding a sentence that will help him out.’ No doubt similar exasperation attended the users of the Flemish phrasebooks.


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