The 4d edition of H Delépine’s What a British Soldier wants to say in French carries on its back page an advertisement for Familiar French, which claims to open the door to ‘the proper use of the Frenchman’s own everyday expressions.
What the booklet claims for itself is that it is an ‘indispensable pocket guide’ to ‘idioms, colloquial expressions and apt proverbs commonly used in French conversation’ and ‘the slang of the French and British Armies, etc.’ It offers access to language ‘in common use by the French, but never to be found in the books’, suggesting the idea of slang or idioms as the kind of expression that is spoken rather than written. The first page suggests the kind of language familiar from French lessons at school some decades ago, not formal, but probably way out of date or place. Schoolboy French, of glorious memory, includes ‘comment ça va?’ rather than ‘comment allez-vous?’, the first French phrase on offer – further down the page we see ‘Ça va?’ and ‘Ça roule?’, which raises the question, not addressed by Delépine, that there is a big difference, and a minefield of potential offence, between recognising and using colloquial expressions – in the introduction he states that the purpose of the booklet is to help the British soldier ‘introduce Colloquialisms or Slang into your conversation’, while not acknowledging that copying the pronunciation ‘Com-mon(g) t’ahlayvoo’ would mark the speaker as from the other side of the Channel.
The selection of phrases in English mark this view of the colloquial as wide-ranging – from common phrases like ‘talk of the devil’ (‘quand on parle du loup, on ne voit la queue’) and ‘to dress up a bit’ (‘faire u bout de toilette’), standard spoken expressions, to ‘to have an old grudge against one’ (‘avoir un dent contre quelq’un’) or ‘take my advice’ (‘suivez mon avis’), neither of which use metaphor or any kind of indirectness; while ‘I am going to have my grub’ (je vais boulotter’) and ‘Chronic’ (‘terrible’) would definitely meet Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s qualifications – and incidentally ‘boulotter’ appears in Déchelette’s L’Argot des Poilus of 1918. Comparison with Déchelette is helpful – both texts have ‘casser la croûte’ for eating, ‘pépin’ for ‘umbrella’, and ‘filon’ for a cushy job.
On the other hand Delépine has ‘une chope’ for a glass of beer, which appears in neither Dechélette nor Sainéan (L’Argot des Tranchées, 1915); Delépine has ‘chiper’ for ‘scrounge’ – which may be related to Dechélette’s ‘choper’ for ‘steal’. Delépine has ‘il a la frousse’ for ‘he has the wind-up’, which appears in Leroy’s Glossary of French Slang, 1922; ‘frousse’ does not appear in Dechélette nor Sainéan.
Specifically presented as ‘Army slang’ is page 20, most of these appearing in Dechélette
‘Rata’ for ‘mashed potatoes’ is a very specific description – Dechélette adds a bit of beef and notes that it comes from ‘ratatouille’. ‘Singe’ was a particularly hard epithet for what passed as edible meat.
What is noticeable is Delépine’s retention throughout of the order of columns – English, French, English transcription of French pronunciation – this is clearly a book where the reader moves from English to French. However, certain sections are designated as compilations of French phrases – these are not specific to the wartime experience.
Comparisons between sources help to show that there is no definitive sense of what constitutes war slang: Delépine’s inclusion of ‘thingumy’ and thingumybob’ lead us to Leroy’s ‘chose’ and ‘machin’, and then on to Dechélette’s ‘fourbi’.
Delépine also presents class delineations of slang: following a phrasebook model of writing the war in a series of dialogues, he presents a dialogue between two privates (with stage directions)
This is followed by another, untitled, but between two soldiers, which is a curious mixture of registers. While the dialogue between two officers is viable (‘chuck it’ might be stretching a point),
the book finishes with a selection of phrases which are presented as ‘correct French’; whether this is colloquial or slang, or an addendum, is not clear. It is all, however, very proper.
From other early wartime phrasebooks readers may recognise the optimism of ‘let me hope that when the war is over you will come to see us in England; everyone at home will give you a hearty welcome’. Such camaraderie is balanced by the phrase that ends page 16