It is clear that contact between social classes in the trenches was fertile ground for the dissemination of slang across boundaries; the wealthy had long before 1914 been in the habit of trying out labourers’ slang (‘binge’ for example), and junior officers in the University and Public Schools Battalion used The Gasper as the name of their magazine. Brophy and Partridge also note ‘battle bowler’, ‘stopping a blast’ (being shouted at), ‘as you were’ and ‘jump to it’ as officer slang. Officer slang could be part of a studied ease, almost a decadence: the Daily Express in June 1918 reported on convalescing officers relaxing at the seaside, their ‘indolence . . . almost epicurean; their slang is subtle super-slang’. How much of this was also self-protection against the new experiences of witness the mechanised destruction of the body?
The recent spotting of absurd-sounding slang in an officer’s letter leads us to one particular term at the time of the First World War. After a bombardment in late July 1916 Lt Christian Carver wrote in a letter home that ‘everyone behaved rippingly’ (Letters From Fallen Englishmen, p64); this sounds to modern ears more appropriate to some crisis at a picnic, the omission to bring the bottle-opener or the escape of a pet rabbit. ‘Ripping’ was very old slang by 1916 – it can be found in J C Hotten’s The Slang Dictionary (1865), as meaning ‘excellent, very good’, and Green’s Dictionary of Slang takes it back to the 1830s. It was for many just the current synonym for ‘very good’:
‘Next morning I woke up at 5 and found our transport had got up and a ripping hot breakfast was ready for us.’
2nd Lieutenant Guy Pedder, 19 December 1916, from The Thirteenth Hussars in the Great War (1921), H Mortimer Durand.
‘One of our men has got a ripping cure for neuralgia, but he isn’t going to take out a patent for it! While lying in the trenches, mad with pain in the face, a shell burst beside him. He wasn’t hit, but the explosion rendered him unconscious for a time, and when he recovered, his neuralgia had gone. His name is Palmer, so now we call the German shells ” Palmer’s Neuralgia Cure “’.
from Tommy Atkins at War, as Told in his Own Letters (1914) James A Kilpatrick.
‘Ripping’ seems too youthful and exuberant to function as a way of wiping out the horror, but see how Coninsby Dawson uses the term in his description of how soldiers hid the reality of war from civilians:
… as a nation we suspect eloquence; it leaves too much room for over-statement. We never see ourselves as silhouetted against the sky-line of eternity our dislike for self-advertisement prevents that. We rarely invent fine phrases to accompany fine actions; we distrust the sincerity of words. Instead, we camouflage our deepest emotions with humour and slang. We are so disdainful of hysterics that we mask our exaltations with indifference. In our dread of striking attitudes our very indifference becomes a pose. Hence in our moments of supreme crisis, when self-justice demands that we should speak out, we find ourselves inarticulate. Not wise, perhaps, and yet rather splendid, this cheerful reticence of the British soldier! To whomsoever else he is a hero, he is no hero to himself. He would rather be taken at his Piccadilly worth. He does nothing by his speech to help people at home to realise the hell he has lived through. When he comes on leave and is asked what kind of a time he has had, “Oh, a ripping time,” he says,” it’s a nice little war. Couldn’t do without it.”
‘A Voice From The Front’, in War, The Liberator And Other Pieces, E. A. Mackintosh (1918)
He is clearly being ironic, but is ‘ripping’ a specific indicator of the irony? ‘Ripping’ might be more subtle than at first appears: ‘Mr. Hughesdon sang Stanford’s “Sea Songs” rippingly, not in bombastically boisterous fashion, but with a certain emotional reserve typical of the spirit which has carried our race through “Battle and storm and the sea-dog’s way” over the ages, chanting cheerily, alike in sunlight or “in wind and rain”.’
from In Ruhleben Camp September 1915
‘Ripping’ as emphatically not boisterous or bombastic. Contrast this with the use of ‘ripping’ which appears as rather incongruous in its simplicity: Rifleman B C Stubbs wrote in his diary in 1915:
Monday, March 1
Sunday night was a perfect beast. Cold and wet and snipers very busy. As for to-day, my first real feeling of funk. A shell burst on parapet just in front of me and gave me a bad shaking. Upset me for about a quarter of an hour, but kept it to myself and pulled myself together again. In the evening, while fetching water, a man shot down three yards from us. Also rather upsetting but kept my head this time. Reached support trenches about 10 o’clock, and had a ripping sleep safe from snipers and fairly so from shells.
He had previously (16 February) written about the arrival at Rouen: Glorious day and the scenery ripping the whole way.
‘Ripping’ was neither exclusive to officers nor to males: a nurse who survived the torpedoing of the Gloucester Castle in 1917 later reported:
“Everyone in the hospital ship was splendid, and everything went off all right. But the men on that old horse-boat were magnificent—they are at this sort of job eternally, and they helped us in every conceivable way. They were absolutely ripping to us, and gave us coffee before we were a second inside the saloon.”
Daring Deeds Of Merchant Seamen In The Great War(1918), Harold F B Wheeler
Dear … A card to … … … we are doing, having a ripping old time. Will write at first possible chance, hope you get this alright … … … Bert
27 July 1915. Postmarked Salisbury
Does past slang always sound slightly embarrassing, or is there an acceptable time lag after which historical slang sounds exciting? Slang from the nineteenth century still sounds like the baroque carving of air – Pierce Egan’s commentaries on boxing, with the milling coves nobbing each other till the claret flows, and Hotten’s dictionary (‘Coach-wheel or Tusheroon, a crown-piece, or five shillings’) – but ‘groovy’ from the 1960s and 70s, even though it made a mild comeback a few years ago, sounds cringeworthy. Michael Palin’s television series of non-heroic adventures was titled to indicate at one level a barely noticeable pun, but at a more obvious level both the outdated and the fiercely bathetic – ‘Ripping Yarns’.
And yet. Circumstances of event and text sometimes lift words unexpectedly. From Gallipoli Diary by John Graham Gillam (1918):
I ride to Morto Bay across country through the white pillars, and have a ripping bathe.
Hear that Revel, of the Essex, has died of wounds. Ripping young chap. Had a cheery chat with him up at Brigade H.Q. two weeks ago.