Selectivity, 12 November 1918/2018

Here is the news – our careers and interests are not finished. The centenary period was always going to be about relating the past to the present, the taut line connecting date to date, experience to imagined experience, act to remembrance. Perhaps now it gets in fact more interesting as we are less tied to that framework, and can roam more freely over the whole business, and over how people began to digest it, evaluate it, and archive it in so many ways. We look at how people in the past looked at the past, and find ourselves at last in the same position – that after a period of what was beginning to appear like endless war, the end had come: like us, they finally knew what happened next.


From the point of view of language, we now have 100 years of people looking back at the linguistic experience of the war, remembering, evaluating, archiving, arguing, and above all selecting. Which terms are thought worth noting, which linguistic phenomena become the ‘words of the First World War’? Our recent blog noted the words and phrases that middle-brow radio comedy selected (see previous blog), a curious and refreshing focus on ‘cushy’, ‘lousy’, ‘breaking new ground’, ‘when the balloon goes up’, and ‘snipe’, rather than the usual ‘no man’s land’, ‘shell-shock’, etc.


What did Eric Partridge, the great observer of wartime language in English highlight, and how did he process it? As regards slang Partridge wrote in Ernest Swinton’s Twenty Years After:

The mixing of the classes has been far more influential than the mixing of the nations. This mixing has been more profitable to the educated than to the uneducated for the latter picked up little more than some arresting or grandiloquent journalese and some useful officialese: the former gained immensely by their acquisition of vivid popular words and phrases, and by tier perception of the vitality and immediacy characteristic no less of dialect than of slang – indeed many cultured men and a few cultured women that had been in danger of becoming effete, pretty-pretty … were revivified by contact with their less ‘respectable’ fellows.


There is a critique of this in Words and the First World War, but essentially Partridge sees this in terms of language acquisition rather than a power shift as one group adopts the language of another.


A decade later Partridge felt that the influence of 1914-1918 was ‘very considerable’ (Partridge and Clark, British and American English since 1900, 1951), yet chose to focus on terms coming into English from German and French:


‘The contemptible little army’ has had quite a lot of usage on the twitterfeed, but there has not been much on how ‘plangemäss’ and ‘spurlos’ actually moved into English. The OED gives:

Times 9 Sept 1919   ‘Here indeed, to use the language of the German bulletins, everything went “according to plan”’, but with earlier usages.

‘Sunk without trace’ was a phrase picked up from German semi- or fully official usage, like ‘Hun’ or ‘hate’, and used both as a challenge and then, from October 1918, mockingly. Fraser and Gibbons describe it as ‘A notorious German phrase of the War that has become historic’, though history has proved its continuing use. Partridge’s teasing ‘several extremely expressive slang words and phrases’ may have meant more to readers in 1951 than it does now – Brophy and Partridge gave ‘pride of place’ to ‘Archie’, and noted ‘sanfairyann’ as ‘an extremely popular phrase’, both of which have disappeared from popular usage.


Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, shown on BBC television on the evening of 11th November 2018, and seen previously in cinemas, is an extraordinary technical achievement; the original film has been speed-reconciled (though slow-motion is used for cinematic effect), colourised, and sound has been added to rebuild the speech ambience, using lip-readers to recreate visible speakers’ words. The cinematic experience takes us there, to the mud, the noise, the bad teeth, ill-fitting uniforms, the flies and the broken bodies – we are surprised into belief, particularly with images such as the dead seated soldier from the film of the Battle of the Somme.. As Will Gompertz’ review for the BBC (20 October 2018 points out:

Every action you see has an accompanying sound, from a bottle being juggled to a tin being opened. He hired lip readers to interpret what the soldiers were saying and brought actors in to voice their words. The upshot of which is you watch the film and accept the illusion without hesitation.We accept the illusion, as our moving image expectations of the colour and sound pull this silent monochrome world into our own.


Perhaps some hesitation would be useful though. The film’s introduction of tanks with voice over describing the early July attacks on the Somme proposes that tanks were used in these attacks, rather than being introduced in mid-September; the outcome of the battle, and the war and the ‘lost generation’, might have been very different if tanks had rolled across on 1st July 1916. The speech recreation is excellent, but at odds with the information provided by the voice overs; specifically it takes no account of the documentation of swearing. There is so much documentation of soldiers swearing, and it’s there in the the voice overs: ‘The language was really edifying – you heard words you never dreamed existed’, and ‘We told dirty stories and made crude remarks’.  Yet what we hear is very tame: a soldier on a stretcher brushes away a nosy magpie with ‘Bloody birds’; a wounded man on a stretcher says ‘Jesus’, perhaps; a soldier says ‘bloody hell’. It is all rather polite. We are told that the pain induced by iodine was ‘terrific’, but a soldier with two neat holes in his arm, when having iodine painted on them, says nothing. Nobody says ‘bastard’ or ‘shit’; a soldier walking along a trench away from the camera holds his upper teeth over his lip as he turns away, but we do not hear him say ‘fuck’. As 2nd Lt Claude Sisley pointed out in The Athenaeum, 1 August 1919:

‘No dialogue pretending to represent military conversation ever rings quite true because this essential word is omitted’.

For W H Downing’s Digger Dialects of 1919 the use of the word was practically synonymous with being a British soldier.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 13.44.03


Is this perhaps because the film was made with an awareness that it would probably be going into schools, even becoming, through the requirement of colour and sound, the definitive ‘grim though educational’ view of the war? Curious, if so, since few children over the age of 10 would be phased by ‘fuck’, though they are likely to be distressed by the sight of smashed and rotting bodies. Repetitive obscenity might even bring it closer to modern experience, even link it to the war’s most familiar contribution to the curriculum. Partridge believed that the senseless repetition of obscenity was one of the most dynamic aspects of military slang, and that the ‘surrealist use of obscenity’ brought a ‘near-poetic value’ to the language. On which subject, as was pointed out on twitter, Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem actually reads ‘They shall grow not old, …’. A small thing maybe, but poets do tend to be selective about which words they use, and in what order.



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