Should we expect early war slang to be naïve or cynical? It is widely noted that slang changes quickly, and this was very much the case with soldiers’ slang during the war; several comments note slang going out of fashion, and the phenomenon of terms being old-hat at the Front by the time they are being picked up at home. The early war slang looks at first a little naïve and out of place. Perhaps this is because its apparent jauntiness does not sit comfortably with the cynicism we link with the industrial killing. James Kilpatrick describes troops in 1914 going into their first action shouting ‘Early doors, this way! Early doors, ninepence!’ Or maybe its deliberate jauntiness was only skin-deep, pointing to a deeper cynicism: by the end of September 1914 there were already thousands of people killed, civilians as well as soldiers, and entertainment metaphors look horribly out of place, if taken at face value.
This list was published in an article syndicated in several papers on 29 September 1914:
Shells were ‘suitcases’; if they did not explode they were said to have ‘lost their keys’.
The positions in the front trench were ‘stalls for the pictures’.
‘I ’anded ’im a plum’ meant ‘I killed him’.
Spies were said to be ‘playing off-side’.
PoWs were ‘ordered off the field’.
The barbed wire was ‘the zoo’.
For this last the correspondent offers the idea that it looked like a cage. This offers an image that might explain the clunky nature of some of the terms, that extended metaphors might have emerged in a conversation behind the lines with a newspaperman. But the quick reaction to a ‘suitcase’ landing nearby and not going off might be some wag remarking that they’d lost its keys. ‘Handing him a plum’ is typical avoidance-slang, seen in countless later phrases. We would think of a cartoon showing a referee red-carding prisoners as pretty harsh, but satire is harsh, and slang satirises standard language; did ‘the zoo’ partially indicate that the soldiers felt they had quickly been relieved of their humanity? Did ‘plum’ refer to a target? A coincidence that one of Charlie Chaplin’s most violent films, involving several situations where people are crushed by trunks, ‘The Property Man’, was released on 1 August 1914.
One thought on “A very early war glossary”
Really interesting. And how arch, clumsy and quaint it all seems, now, when with all the hindsight in the world we can see the distancing language at a great distance.