Swearing and the sentimental

One of the greatest cultural differences between now and the period of the First World War is the acceptance, even embracing, of the sentimental; unfashionable and generally unstudied now, sentimental songs, sentimental postcards, sentimental rhymes reminded soldiers of home and loved ones. Several anecdotal references show how the sentimental was so often the mindset of choice, with songs such as Novello’s  Keep the Homes Fires Burning(first published as “‘Till the Boys Come Home” in October 1914), R S Mottram’s description of British soldiers doing little domestic services in a Flemish farmhouse, with ‘elaborate Sunday-school politeness, . . . tittering slightly at anything not quite nice, and singing, not so often the vulgar music-hall numbers, as the more sentimental “Christmas successes” from the pantomimes’, and the wide use of Bamforth’s song lyric postcards.


If there is a time of the year when we might allow the indulgence of the sentimental, it is probably Christmas. Here then to round off the year, is a little sentimental story by E G Miles, from Told in the Huts, the YMCA’s gift book published in 1916. It merits examination for a number of things, its portrayal of the YMCA hut environment, the two voices – no names – with their differences of class and outlook, but most of all for its setting out of the role of swearing. The soldier swears habitually; he swears at inanimate objects, the ‘bloomin’ motors’ (which seems at first odd, but is easily recognisable); he recognises swearing as an escape valve, but understands also that swearing directed at an individual crosses the line. Most notably he believes the parson, chaplain or padre, would be sacked if he swore, and also that the parson is not supposed to ‘understand it’, to make the links between expletive and expressed concept; but this begs the question of whether swearing in this kind of situation does actually make a link with bodily functions.


Beyond this the story makes it clear that in the space between home and no man’s land there were different kinds of spaces which were both reflected and defined by the presence, absence or degree of swearing. In highlighting this the story both indicates the emptiness of swearing, the value of swearing, and the impossibility of communicating the frontline experience in its own language to listeners at home. Though the title of the last sketch, ‘Tommy’s Home’, may not have intended this point to be clearly made, home for so many of them might, in terms of language, have been determined exactly as somewhere that swearing did not happen.


Told in the Huts 203Told in the Huts 204Told in the Huts 205Told in the Huts 206Told in the Huts 207Told in the Huts 208


For last-minute presents, take a look at the books page. We recommend them all.





Times of impending chaos

In times when it feels as though civilisation is slipping away and a right mess is just around the corner, it is perhaps helpful to see what impending disaster looked like in the early days of August 1914. These three telegrams show just how much of a world war the web of treaties created – not just the simple domino sequence of Austria v Serbia, which brings in Russia, which brings in France, which brings in Germany, which brings in Britain. These three telegrams received by Sir Edward Grey between 2.30 and 3.45 on the morning of 4th August involved discussions in at least eight languages. The last statement is intriguing – to ‘hold language to someone’, which the OED gives as ‘offer, proffer, present’, with the citation:

1796   Hist. in Ann. Reg. 77   The French..held out language promissory of equitable conditions.

All four OED citations give ‘hold out’, which is comfortable and current – X frequently holds out an offer to Y, and it suggests a pretty clear visual image. William Conyngham Greene’s ‘His Excellency … will hold similar language to them’ does not; it is more formal, slightly threatening perhaps.

Esmé Howard, as an influential British diplomat in Sweden, exerted his power to maintain neutrality in Sweden, which generally favoured the Central Powers. Here he is understandably nervous about any possible ambiguity in his reporting of the situation. Sir Charles Louis des Graz (1860-1940) was a British diplomat who served at Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey as Attaché  from 1885 and ended up as Minister to Serbia 1914-20. Presumably his telegram was not completely decipherable – no reason is given; it is worrying to imagine any kind of potential diplomatic misunderstanding caused by an indecipherable telegram at such a time.


Telegrams 3 August 1914




Frank Vizetelly, ‘The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms’ and ‘A Desk-book of Errors in English’

Frank Vizetelly (1864-1938) created a large body of work in the fields of etymology and lexicography, and maintained an attitude that might be best described as correctivist, not uncommon for the time – Wikipedia quotes his words “Slovenly speech is as clearly an indication of slovenly thought as profanity is of a degraded mind.” Equally a quick run through his titles stocked by the British Library show a mind attuned to the idea that language was a field of pitfalls to be avoided or corrected: A desk-book of twenty-five thousand words frequently mispronounced (1910), A Desk-book of Errors in English : Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation (1920), Words We Misspell In Business : Ten Thousand Terms, Showing Their Correct Forms and Divisions as Used in Printing and Writing, with Rules Governing the Orthography of English Words (1921). Vizetelly’s approach in A Desk-book of Errors in English is based on observation of language practice, including observation of what he sees as misdirected advice, for example the statement that ‘Some writers assert that desert is used only “of causes or persons but not of things.” This is erroneous. There is ample evidence of its correct application to things; as the soldier deserts his colours; the sailor deserts his ship.’ It could be argued here that ‘colours’ and ‘ship’ are causes as much as things, but no great matter. Or ‘Discriminate carefully between these terms [as far as, so far as]. As far as expresses distance; so far as expresses limitation, as of one’s knowledge. Therefore, “so far as I know” is preferable to “as far as I know”.’ Without laying out arguments for and against this approach, it is clear from the title that this was intended, and no doubt often very useful, as a referral guide for writers, rather than a slap-down for speech in practice.

FV title

Vizetelly’s subtitle for this book is ‘Including Notes on Colloquialisms and Slang to be Avoided in Conversation’, implying that there is slang which does not have to be avoided. From the Introduction: ‘The one besetting sin of the English-speaking people is a tendency to use colloquial inelegancies, slang, and vulgarisms, and against these, as against the illiteracies of the street, it is our duty to guard, nowadays more so than at any other time, since what is learnt in the schoolroom is soon forgotten or displaced by association with illiterate playfellows, or by occasionally hearing words misused at home.’ But a few sentences later he writes, ‘The English language is the most flexible language in the world. Indeed, it is so flexible that some of its idioms are positively startling.’ How then might speakers, or in this case writers, of English steer a safe passage between flexible idioms and colloquial inelegancies? There are a few tell-tale signs that class is a determinant here: the expressions ‘sucker’, ‘no flies on him’, ‘go off at half-cock’, and others are described as ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction’, or even ‘to be avoided by all persons with pretentions to refined diction’, a phrase reminiscent of John Walker’s campaign that linked the alteration of speech patterns to social aspiration. Vizetelly lays out his position on slang in the penultimate paragraph of the Introduction: ‘Of slang no less eminent a writer of English than Richard Grant White has said, “Slang is a vocabulary of genuine words or unmeaning jargon, used always with an arbitrary and conventional signification,” and because “it is mostly coarse, low, and foolish,” certain slang terms and phrases have been included in the following pages, together with a few undesirable colloquialisms. These are included because the indiscriminate use of slang leads to slovenliness in speech. Not all slang is slovenly, incorrect, or vicious; much of it is virile, expressive, and picturesque. It is against the spread of that part of slang which is slovenly, incorrect, foolish, or vicious, that one should guard.’ Richard Grant White (1822-85) may command less reverence now than in his heyday, despite his robust facial hair, but the sense that there is ‘good slang’ and ‘bad slang’ persisted, certainly in the minds of some commentators, to 1914, when the army slang derived from colonial soldiering was meeting the urban slang of the new armies.

Walkers Dict title 1854


Some of the slang built up during the first three years of the war was presented to American soldiers through Lorenzo Smith’s Lingo of No Man’s Land (1918), a soldiers’ slang glossary, the need for which, in the writer’s words, ‘was impressed upon me while on recruiting duty for the British-Canadian Recruiting Mission’. This was thus a case of soldier slang being part of the attraction for potential recruits, in this case targeting British and Canadian men living in the US. Just as the unwary speaker needed to be educated away from slang, the recruit had to be educated towards it.


What then is the approach applied in Vizetelly’s The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms of 1918, in particular with regard to how this book might deal with slang expressions? None of the expressions listed in A Desk-book of Errors in English appears in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary, but he does provide space for soldier slang. The lengthy text on the title page, reminiscent of language manuals of the previous century, indicates that we are in a world of social education, not for class aspiration, but for the battlefield, the rest camp, map-reading, transport, and the management of horses; there is a refreshing absence of residual tourist phrasebook requests for baths, the repair of shoes, and directions to the zoo. He gives us expressions which might be expected to have designations as slang – ‘frigo’ (French slang for frozen meat) and Jack Johnson;

FV frigo

FV jack Johnson

Others are designated as slang: ‘funk-hole’, ‘cootie’ ‘(a louse: soldiers’ slang)’, ‘gippo’ ‘[soldiers’ slang], ‘“cushy” (Soldiers’ slang for comfortable)’, ‘“mack” (Mackintosh (soldiers’ slang), ‘grousing’ (Grumbling: discontent.: soldiers’ slang.). What is noticeable is the lack of consistency in these – italics, shapes of brackets, inverted commas, all seems quite arbitrary; ‘cushy’, ‘Wipers’ and ‘mack’, with double inverted commas, omit any reference to French, breaking with the rationale of the book entirely – the double inverted commas seem to indicate that this is an essential slang word needing definition rather than translation, but nowhere is this explained; and ‘grousing’ has only single inverted commas. It is as if slang by its very nature breaks up the rules.

FV funk-hole

FV cootie

FV gippo

FV cushy

FV mack


FV Wipers

FV grousing


Vizetelly, like all commentators on language, holds up a magnifying glass to the language and society of his time; in A Desk-book of Errors we see that the slang expressions ‘fakement’, ‘skidoo’ and ‘rubber-neck’ are current, and for Vizetelly undesirable, while ‘flub-dub’ and a ‘jollier’ are acceptable slang terms. He is non-committal with regard to the occasional expression: ‘twenty-three: A slang term used as the equivalent of “fade away” in theatrical and sporting circles: a recent expression the origin of which has been variously explained.’ And there is an interesting aspect of ‘push’: while in The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘the Big Push’ is given as ‘The battle of the Somme: British soldiers’ name’, A Desk-book of Errors states thatIn English slang “push” is used for “crowd” probably from the proverbial restlessness and crushing in which English crowds usually indulge.’ The Soldiers’ Service Dictionary provides for the expectations of the American Expeditionary Force’s wide engagement in the campaign, from technical and officialese terms, such as ‘ecchymosis’, ‘empennage’ and ‘goniometer’, to ‘Boche’, ‘mate’ and ‘dugout’. Only one of the slang expressions appears in both texts: ‘half-cock’, though with startlingly different results. In The Soldier’s Service Dictionary ‘at half cock’ is translated as ‘au cran de repos’ (at rest), while A Desk-book of Errors gives ‘half-cock, to go off at: A colloquial phrase denoting “to speak before one is ready”’. Naturally, it is ‘not used by persons accustomed to refined diction.’


War Service Library








Picquet / Piquet / Picket

A question has arisen regarding the spelling of this term, initiated by tweeting the entry for 26 November 1918 in the diary of Rifleman Frederick Walker, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

26 November 1918

His spelling is at odds with that in the Field Service Pocket Book (1914, edn of March 1916), which uses ‘piquet’, as does the 1916 reprint of the 1914 Infantry Training (see below), while the US publications The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms (1917) and Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms (1918)  give ‘picket’, translated into French in the first of these as ‘piquet’.



A few examples of pre-war, wartime and post-war texts, showing the general use of ‘piquet’:


There was a platoon and a half to go away to some place two miles to the south and piquet a road. Denis Oliver Barnett – in happy memory his letters from France and Flanders, October 1914-August 1915 – D. O. Barnett (1915)

My belief is that the enemy will content themselves with placing a piquet on each of the two roads which run through their position. The first hundred thousand, being the unofficial chronicle of a unit of K (1) – I. Hay (1916)

And everyone enjoyed himself until the piquet came. Buddy’s blighty, and other verses from the trenches (c1918)

In the first instance he was in charge of a company ordered to establish a piquet in a position which was much exposed and commanded by fire. He set a fine example in beating off attacks and in attempting to establish the piquet.  Artists’ Rifles War Record (1922)


A frequently expected spelling is ‘picket’, as in:


One midshipman, whose picket boat was blown to pieces under him in the Straits was asked by a foolish journalist in Malta to “give a young officer’s impressions of his experience”  The Scotsman 1915


The OED carries a citation for ‘picket’ in ‘picket boat’ from 1861, which is the date also of the earliest citation using this spelling for a military body of men on sentry or scouting duty. Previously the spelling is ‘piquet’, and there is a note stating ‘In the British Army Regulations spelt piquet’. There is also a citation for ‘picquet’ from the British Army Regulations, 1955.


‘Picquet’ and ‘picket’ seem to be the selected spellings for the punishment stake, where the offender has to stand on one leg atop a picket/picquet. Where the spelling ‘picquet’ comes from, goodness knows; the OED dating of spellings gives it from the 16th century through to the 17th. There is no ‘c’ in the French, and analogous spelling models are unhelpful – the OED gives the ‘rare’ ‘picqueter’, an arranger of artificial flowers, from the French, which in French does not have a ‘c’.


The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales offers two old spellings, the first presumably from the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française:


Ac. 1718: picquet; dep. [depuis? ‘since’] 1740: piquet.

Étymol. et Hist.1. 1380 «bâton pointu, pieu» pichet (A.N. MM 30, fo172 vods Gdf. Compl.)


And the first edition of the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, from 1694, has

s. m. Certain jeu de cartes assez connu. Joüer au picquet. joüer un cent de picquet.


Possibly the insertion of a ‘c’ happened in the environment of France, as a nod to expected, if uninformed, French spelling. Nearby there are Frencq, Cucq and Bréxent-Énocq, but also Le Touquet. But the spelling ‘picquet’ appears also in the diary of Pte James Jones of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment, on 30 May 1917; at the time he was stationed in Salonica.








Awards and decorations November 1916

ribbons 4A little leaflet has come our way, published in November 1916; it folds up to about the size of a playing-card. It would have been useful indeed for recognising the ribbons which take the place of medals in undress (i.e. when not wearing uniform).

We like the understatement: ‘Contrary to the British practice, French, Belgian and Russian soldiers may be seen in the streets of London displaying the medals themselves’.

Oh dear.ribbons 2ribbons 3ribbons 1


And, in passing, an early use of the term ‘PT’ in Rifleman Fred Walker’s diary from November 1918; at this point he was convalescing from the effects of a gas attack. As regards the dancing, this was tweeted by Dr Emma Hanna:

Folk dancing was used in convalescents notably by YMCA-sponsored instructor Daisy Daking. Dispatched to France in 1917 from Cecil Sharp’s group. Daking created a team of 30 folk dance instructors working with BEF in France and Flanders by end of 1918.

13 to 16 November 1918



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 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-45910189) 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.



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.