Wartime slang on BBC Radio 4

On the eve of the centenary of the Armistice BBC Radio’s comedy sketch programme The Now Show marked the end of the centenary of the war with a brief session on words. Introducing the subject by questioning David Cameron’s use of the word ‘celebrations’ to suggest the tone of centenary activities, the sequence went on to state that ‘the cultural impact of the First World War can be seen in our everyday language’, which we wholeheartedly endorse.


A look in detail at the words and phrases offered:


‘Chatting’ and ‘lousy’ are well-known, and have developed away from their original usages, if ‘chatting’ is taken to mean ‘removing chats, i.e. lice from clothing’; it looks like a happy coincidence that one chatted (easy conversation, from the sixteenth century) while chatting with the fingernails or a candle, which Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937/1974)) dates as from around 1850, coming into general use during the war, and ‘responsible for obvious puns’.




‘Breaking new ground’ according to The Now Show’s script-writers, or more likely their reference material, ‘meant digging a new trench’. We’ve not previously come across this as a First World War new phrase, though its development from the Regular Army and the Territorial Army into wider use through contact with the New Armies may certainly be a result of the war; for the OED the sense of ‘doing something new’ is rather earlier, from 1631, and the usage for an army beginning to dig trenches dates from 1678.


‘“When the balloon goes up” … refers to the moment when just before a battle an observation balloon was sent up to see the enemy positions’. Presumably in the period after the bombardment had finished, and before the moving barrage took its place? It’s not easy to imagine this in practice, though essentially it is what soldiers saw; the phrase certainly came into use then, and is a good example of how a straightforward observation developed into a metaphorical use. Brophy and Partridge note the development in Soldiers’ Songs and Slang (1930) –



And Fraser and Gibbons (1925) have the same use of ‘What time’ rather than ‘When’


The OED is not entirely clear on exact usage: they offer from Putnam’s Magazine in 1909:

‘You tell Alfonso..that one more break like that will give him a good swift start for Spain.’..‘In brief, Alfonso, cut out the musical extras or your balloon goes up.’ This seems to be implying the balloon being cast adrift.

The OED’s earliest citation of the exact phrase is from 1924: ‘When’s the magistrate’s court?’.. ‘The balloon, I believe, goes up at 10 a.m.’

Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English notes that the phrase is ‘slightly obsolescent’.



‘Sniper’ does indeed originate in India, according to the OED, whose first citation, from the East India Military Calendar – ‘Several sepoys were killed and wounded by the enemy’s snipers’ – is dated 1824, earlier than the first OED citation for a snipe-shooter, which is dated 1840. Fraser and Gibbons go even earlier, dating it from the American War of Independence, and noting that by the start of the twentieth century it was an established military term.



The selection of ‘bullets and shells’ that gave rise to slang terms is excellent – pipsqueak, crump, whizz-bang and toffee-apple. Details on all of these can be found in Trench Talk and Words and the First World War (see below for links).


We encourage you to catch up on the programme, as much as anything to see how these words and phrases are being applied to current political satire. And indeed, as the script says, ‘All this legacy we will remember of Sunday’. The programme can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 12.30 GMT on 10 November 2018, and is available online for another 29 days.




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