The 23rd April, being the anniversary of the deaths of both Cervantes and Shakespeare, is a good excuse for a handful of literary references. As might be expected, Cervantes is represented by Don Quixote, in adjectival form mostly; many strategies, tactics, and even campaigns have over time attracted the description; here are a few:


The dispatch of the Dunsterville Force to Baku was condemned in certain quarters as a quixotic adventure.

The Long Road to Baghdad (1919), Edmund Candler


Turkey’s attempt to destroy the Suez Canal is described as a ‘quixotic venture’

With the R.A.M.C. in Egypt (1918), “Serjeant-Major, R.A.M.C.” (Tickner Edwards)


He [the enemy] offered up his best regiment, the Staffordshire, to certain death, sending it forward to meet the Turks and to provide the opening scene in the melancholy drama which, under the title of the ‘ glorious retirement from Gallipoli ‘ was to make its Don Quixote progress though the journalistic forest of the Entente press.

 This last is a A German staff officer’s account of the withdrawal from the Helles, appearing in The Dardanelles by Major-General Sir C. E. Callwell (1919), and is fairly quixotic writing in itself.


Equally interesting are African connections to the knight of the mournful complexion:


In A Doctor’s Diary in Damaraland [Namibia] (1917) Dr H F B Walker writes


On the way home we called at the farm of an Italian living in rather a poor way. At first he was not inclined to be very communicative. He was under the impression that things were going very badly with the Allies in Europe, and that we were about to be bundled out of German West. The Germans had told him that London was in flames, Calais and Warsaw taken, and that England, Russia, and France, were kaput, a word we hear frequently on German lips, and equivalent to utterly destroyed plus damned. We assured him that none of these things were so, and then he came down on our side of the fence without reserve. ” The Germans call us Italians ‘dirty pigs’ now,” he said, spitting on the ground with great emphasis, “and will crush us under foot like beetles; but we will show them!” and he destroyed several imaginary Germans in a very quixotic manner.


While Georges Lafond, in Covered with Mud and Glory, [orig Ma Mitrailleuse] (1918) writes:


A big devil of a Moroccan colonel, with a Don Quixotic face under an extraordinary headpiece, invites us to his P. C. (post of command), where the Boche has left useful bits of installation. A black hole is two steps away from us. We go down into the ground, over abrupt descents, and there we are protected from the ” marmites ” in a dark corridor lit by candles stuck into the mouths of German gas masks.


The quixotic style of the editors of the Wipers Times under its later title of The B.E.F. Times offered this on 22nd January 1918




H C Owen’s Salonica and After (1919) has a rich passage about the locally produced newspaper, the Balkan News, of which he wrote:


Started in November, 1915, the B.N. was the first daily newspaper to come into being purely for the needs of an army, and the cry of “Bawkanoos,” which was first heard in the camps immediately outside the city, spread, as the troops advanced, to the furthest confines of Macedonia.


 Quite a number of anecdotes, true and otherwise, cluster round the B.N. One of the true ones is that of the Bulgar who left a note for one of our outposts on the Struma, saying that as he possessed the words for “Boris the Bulgar” published in the B.N.
be awfully glad if he could have the music. ” Boris the Bulgar” was a parody on the famous “Gilbert the
Filbert,” and the refrain of it was

“Good gracious, how spacious

And deep are the cuts

Of Boris the Bulgar,

The Knifer of Knuts.”

I believe it was decided that the request should not be granted. Another Bulgar used to leave a penny every night somewhere near Big Tree Well, in the region of Butkova Lake, and quite often he got his B.N. in exchange. No doubt every such copy did more than its fair share of propaganda.

And this sketch of the work of The Balkan News would not be complete if we did not mention a great personality who was closely identified with it. I refer to that grandiose individual known to all in the Balkans as His Macedonian Highness, The Comitadji [partisan]. H.M.H. The Comitadji was a sort of blend of Falstaff, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ally Sloper and Mr. Horatio Bottomley, adapted to Balkan conditions.

It will easily be seen that here are all the makings of a Great Man.—He was a being of imposing presence ; he drank deep too deep; he was, according to his own was, according
a great Bulgar Slayer; he had, naturally, a plurality of wives; and was a master of rounded, rolling periods. In royal, or semi-royal, state, he moved up and down the British area of Macedonia in his powerful Ford motor-car, which was universally known as the J.R.L., or Junior Road Louse. Another Great Man of long ago, Don Quixote, was brought into being to tilt at the false romanticism which existed in Cervantes’ time. H.M.H. was perhaps partly called into being by the great outpouring of decorations and orders which was one of the symptoms of the Great War. As so many others were being given, H.M.H. The Comitadji instituted his own orders. The best known of these was the Order of the Boiled Owl, and after a time it became a very prized decoration indeed.

Quite a lot to digest there: Don Quixote, Falstaff, Ally Sloper (of whom much more, much later), Cyrano de Bergerac, and Boris the Bulgar. Exit stage left.




A common theme in the LFWW debates, from an unabashedly English point of view, is the process of the Anglicisation of French words and place-names. After attempts from a number of directions, we find it is possible to spell Anglicisation with an ‘s’ without sparking off red lines, but it has taken a while. Eric Partridge, writing Chambers of Horrors (1952) as ‘Vigilans’ (but unashamedly writing an introduction to the book under his own name), offers ‘–ize or, in a few verbs, -ise (see Modern English Usage at –ISE).’ The second edition (1983 printing) of that volume’s entry begins ‘1. On the general question of the spelling of verbs ending in the sound īz, see –IZE, -ISE.’ This states that ‘the ultimate source of the ending is the Greek –izo’, and that ‘most English printers, taking their cue from Kent in King Lear … [‘whoreson zed’ etc.] follow the French practice of changing –ize to ise. But the Oxford University Press, the Cambridge University Press, The Times, and American usage, in all of which –ize is the accepted form, carry authority enough to outweigh superior numbers.’


Fair enough, and that might be it. But perhaps worth checking in the other direction, as not only were there many anglicizations during the war, there were many English words and phrases adopted by French speakers, which are francizations – or, in French francisations – also known as Gallicisms, though a Gallicism is defined by the OED as ‘An idiom or mode of expression belonging to the French language, esp. one used by a speaker or writer in some other language’, rather than ‘An idiom or mode of expression belonging to some other language, used by a speaker or writer in the French language’. See below for Noah Webster’s views on these (1852 edition); Webster’s ‘render conformable to the French idiom or language’ for ‘Gallicize’ is rather more formal than the OED’s ‘To render French-like; to Frenchify’.





‘Frenchify’ carries a bit of a sense of the disparaging, the idea that ‘Frenchness’ is something that can be added with the simplicity of a spoonful of salad-dressing or a bit of lace. There is also the corresponding word ‘Anglify’, which carries no such connotations. I wish I had not looked up ‘Frenchified’ in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English; but the damage is done. ‘Infected with VD’. Partridge doesn’t have an ‘Anglify’ (but the eye alights on ‘Angry Cat’, an anglicisation of the name of the French battleship in the Dardanelles, the Henri IV). The question of whether these words get upper or lower case ‘a’ and ‘f’ is a whole other business, avoided by both Fowler’s Modern English Usage and Partridge in Usage and Abusage; it probably comes down to taste and aesthetics, just as Partridge castigates ‘cannibalize’ and ‘deinsectisize’ ‘on account of the particular horror (the formation in –ize) than on that of the general ugliness or unsuitability or unnecessariness of the words as a whole’.


Partridge reckoned that ‘hospitalize’ ‘may have originated in the combatant services’, but it was around in a civilian context in 1901; no doubt the increase in officialese and hospitalization familiarized people with it.





As the Call for Papers is echoed by the Acceptance of Submissions, we can now offer a draft list of just some of the confirmed papers for the conference:


London, 10 September


Mark Connelly, Professor of History, University of Kent – Remembering and directing: the language of British battlefield guidebooks, 1919-1939′


Amanda Laugesen, Director, Australian National Dictionary Centre – War words and the evolution of Australian remembrance of the Great War, 1919-1939


Chris Kempshall, University of Sussex – Insults between the entente powers at the end of the war


Professor Nevena Dakovic, Dept. of History and Theory, FDA/UoA, Belgrade  – Multimedia language of the great war: Stanislav Krakov


Dr Anne Samson, The Great War in Africa Association – Language in the East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918


Brussels, 12 September


Marguerite Helmers, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh – The rhetoric of avoidance


Luc Vandeweyer, Belgian National Archives – The role of the language border in Belgium in the expansionist plans of the German occupier


Javier Alcalde, University of Barcelona – Esperanto during the First World War


Harun Buljina, Columbia University – Bosnia’s Polyglot Pan-Islamists between Empire and Nation State, 1914-1920


Miguel Brandão, Faculty of Arts of Porto – Humour in Portuguese newspapers  (1914-1918); what could war-related humour tell us about the Great War?



Booking is now open

Angela Brazil’s strafing schoolgirls

Jonathon Green, of Green’s Dictionary of Slang alerts LFWW to the use of ‘strafe’ in Angela Brazil’s wartime novels. Angela Brazil (stress on the first syllable of Brazil) changed the tone of girls’ school novels with her avoidance of a moralising and worthy tone in favour of the feeling of writing from the girls’ point of view. In we read that ‘Shirley Foster and Judy Simons point out that Brazil’s use of language was a key reason for the popularity of her stories: “Brazil’s slang, considered sufficiently outrageous by contemporary readers for her books to be banned from some schools, effectively creates its own anti-authoritarian code that is distinctively juvenile and female.”’


As an example of Brazil’s use of the term Green notes:

“It means a good solid hour’s work,” whispered Raymonde to Ardiune. “Tennis is off to-night. Strafe the old camp! I wish the Romans had never lived!”

The Madcap of the School, 1917 (p67)

This matches a use of ‘strafe’ to mean ‘to hell with’, which is not over-common. It can be found, possibly, in War Letters of Desmond Genet, 1918 (p306):

I hope some one of our armed merchant-vessels see and fire upon a German U-boat without any warning soon and sink it. They’ve got orders to do just that, so let them do it. Strafe the damned Boches!

‘Strafe’ was used figuratively in a number of ways, ranging from the general:

When this type of cheap witticism got beyond all bearing, the Medical Officer would seek out the Quartermaster, and together they would strafe the English, talking of Sassenachs and hinting at dark deeds, and the Quartermaster would think regretfully of his Skein-dhu and the Medical Officer would rattle his pill-box threateningly in its scabbard.

Herbert Rae, Maple Leaves in Flanders, 1916 (p107)

to the Lifebuoy Soap adverts from June 1916 – ‘strafing germs and microbes’, and three months later Tennants’ beer (‘“some” beer surely’) ‘strafing all others’; and ‘Strafe me!’ in a play by a Private Hamel, in the trench journal The Grey Brigade, 11 Dec 1915.


‘Strafe’ quickly became a general purpose term, like ‘napoo’:

… the soldier cook brought on the roast chicken, which was received with a befitting chorus of approbation:

Who would carve? Who knew how to carve?

Modesty passed the honour to its neighbour, till a brave man said:

“I will! I will strafe the chicken!”

Gott strafe England! Strafe has become a noun, a verb, an adjective, a cussword, and a term of greeting. Soldier asks soldier how he is strafing to-day. The Germans are not called Boches they are called Strafers. “Won’t you strafe a little for us?”

Frederick Palmer, My Year of the Great War, 1915 (p300)

‘Strafe it/him/her/anything’ in the sense of ‘to hell with …’ as in ‘Strafe him, he’s got my pen!’ (advert for Swan pens, Printers’ Pie, 1916), certainly appealed to Angela Brazil’s schoolgirls, at least after 1916 – it does not feature in her two books of 1915 and her one of 1916. By 1918 it was freely used:

“I’m the worst off,” sighed Marjorie. “I’ve got to spend Saturday afternoon pen-driving, and it’s the match with Holcombe. I’m just the unluckiest girl in the whole school. Strafe it all! It’s a grizzly nuisance. I should like to slay myself!”

 A Patriotic Schoolgirl, 1918

“Strafe the baity old blighter!” gasped David.


“Strafe the wretched old turns!”

 For the School Colours, 1918

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 18.19.50

Did ‘strafe’ count as outrageous slang? And how did it compare with the supposedly slang ‘baity’ (bad-tempered)? (Incidentally this ‘baity’ predates the OED’s current earliest by three years.) The Armistice did not stop Angela Brazil from using ‘strafe’, which appears in both her books published in 1919, though these may have been written before the end of hostilities.

“Strafe the old chap and his jaw-wag!” exploded Mervyn. “A nice mess he’s got us into with his fussy interference!”


“Strafe the old dentist! I wish he were at the bottom of the sea!” declared the youngest of the Forrester family, with temper.


“Oh, strafe Sir Galahad!” groaned Morland. “The armour’s the most beastly uncomfortable hot stuff to wear you can imagine. I wish I had a turned-up nose and freckles.”

are found in The Head Girl at the Gables (1919);

“You can if you wish, and I’ll write to her myself, and explain that it is against our rules.” Murmuring something that sounded dangerously like “Strafe rules!” Diana darted upstairs for blotting-pad and fountain-pen.

appears in A Harum Scarum Schoolgirl (1919).


‘Strafe’ is rather an isolated war term for Brazil: she does not appear to use ‘cushy’, ‘no man’s land’, ‘cuthbert’, ‘sanfairyann’, or any of the spelling variations of ‘napoo’. In The Jolliest Term on Record (1915) there is a letter from a wounded soldier which refers to ‘the Hun’, but it is 1918 before girls start using the term themselves, which may be taken as an indicator of the term slipping into acceptable general usage. Unsurprisingly it appears a number of times in For The School Colours (1918), describing the villainous Mr Hockheimer, and three times in A Patriotic Schoolgirl (1918), including the enterprising:

“It’ll mean knocking off buns, I suppose,” sighed Sylvia mournfully.


‘Save a bun,

And do the Hun!'”

improvised Marjorie.

A couplet which might have satisfied A P Herbert two decades later.


‘Strafe’ eventually fades away, not featuring in A Popular Schoolgirl (1920), The Princess of the School (1920), or Brazil’s books of 1921; a good example of how the war made slang terms fashionable, and how they disappeared.




Interpreting what you hear

When looking at slang words in English that were acquired from other languages during the First World War our first reaction tends to be to admire the twists of sound and word involved in anglicising the foreign. It is a process that has a long past, generally described as ‘folk etymology’ in the turning of ‘avocado pear’ into ‘alligator pear’ or ‘asparagus’ into ‘sparrow-grass’. Essentially it involves grasping the unknown and forcing it into the frame of the known. If there is some assistance, for example the skin of the avocado, not hugely unlike that of the alligator, then so much the better; if not, it doesn’t matter much anyway. The Reverend A Smythe Palmer made an extensive and entertaining study of the subject, published in 1882, with the subtitle ‘A dictionary of verbal corruptions or words perverted in form or meaning, by false derivation or mistaken analogy’, opening up a way of looking at the English language as something which has stumbled forward with a combination of mistakes, miss-hearings, laziness and xenophobia. The hold of a ship, for example, was originally the ‘hole’ or hollow part of the ship, the ‘d’ jettisoned to accommodate the meaning of ‘to hold’; a ‘clipper’, thought to be called so to indicate its speed, but actually deriving from the German klepper, a racehorse; a ‘toady’, imagined as someone unlikeable, keeping close to the ground, but offensive – which was in fact a development of the word ‘towardly’, meaning tractable and amenable. Palmer has great delight with dialect or regional words, such as ‘monkey-pee’, a Kentish word for a wood-louse, deriving from its resemblance to a multipede (now a millipede). English provides a fund of urban myths in this field, folk etymologies of folk etymologies if you like, such as the dismissal of something as nonsense with the words ‘all my eye and Betty Martin’, supposed to come from anglophone sailors who, as prisoners of war in Spain during the wars at the end of the eighteenth century, heard the words ‘ora pro me, Beata Mater’. Palmer’s book is conveniently divided into sections on ‘English words corrupted’; Foreign words corrupted’; ‘Proper names corrupted’ (particularly useful for tracing place names); ‘Corruptions due to coalescence of the article’ – such as ‘umper’ or ‘nickname’; and ‘Corruptions due to mistakes about number’.


Which brings us to the field of anglicisations of place-names and other words contrived by Anglophone soldiers in France and Flanders, the wonderful Ocean Villas and ‘Bombardier Fritz’ and their like. Words and the First World War contains a study of a selection of words to observe the process of anglicisation by sound or sight: the move from Auchonvillers to ‘Ocean Villas’ works by sound, while Doignes to ‘Dogs knees’ works by vision, as do Aix-les-Bains (Aches and pains) and Busnes (Business). How Godewaersvelde got to ‘Gertie wears velvet’ was probably a mix of both.


PoWs with dolmetscher


A key figure in the business of communication across language barriers was the Dolmetscher, the interpreter. Dolmetscher to ‘dull major’, noted by Fraser & Gibbons and Brophy & Partridge, was probably a transfer via sound; however, the form ‘dull major’ is hard to find. Knowing that the German interpreter had the ability to make PoWs’ lives much worse than necessary, perhaps Anglophone prisoners chose not to risk upsetting that useful person. Note here, for example, even where Frank MacDonald’s comrades in The Kaiser’s Guest (1918) are shown having a laugh at their captors’ expense (fairly easily recognizable from schooldays), the writer avoids the term ‘dull major’.


Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 17.20.16


But also, the Dolmetscher was the term for the prisoner who spoke German and could act as an interpreter for his fellows, as here in Henry Mahoney and Frederick Talbot’s Sixteen Months in Four German Prisons (1917); you would be even less likely to call your comrade a ‘dull major’, however good a play on words it seemed.


Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 17.28.06


Sadly Palmer died on 10 July 1917; it is a shame that he did not revise his work in the light of anglophone soldiers’ fun and games with French, German, Italian and so on; but curious that British social propagandists did not pick up on his observation of the origin of the pickelhaube. Had they done so we might have had another epithet for the German soldier.


Palmer pickelhaube


Abstracts in, decisions to be made



Thank you to all those who submitted abstracts for papers for the September conference. The range of subjects, and the areas and languages covered, promise that the conference will truly reflect the global nature of the conflict, and take us beyond both the Western Front and the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles. The backslapping over, now comes the business of putting together the programme for the conference. While we will be giving precedence to those selected papers that arrived before 21st March, we may hold open a couple of slots for late developments, and to allow for unforeseen withdrawals (we accept that these things happen).


In the meantime we offer you pictures of people waiting and wondering; we promise we’ll get decisions out soon, in fact ‘toot the sweet’ (and the tooter the sweeter).


And of course, Easter greetings.


Last call


As the scientific committee sits down to work out the programme for the September conference, there remain a few days to send a last abstract or two. Get those ideas down and rush to post them. We will keep open one slot for each day for last inspired ideas, but we are already very excited by the abstracts, and indeed the geographical range of subjects, that have been sent. It promises to extend the subject to show that the linguistic experience of the conflict was truly global.


And the booking pages are now open:


Communication will find a way

In last Thursday’s broadcast of the BBC radio serial ‘Home Front’, it was noticeable how little reference there was to the war. One character, a former prisoner of war, stands out as someone suffering from the guilt and shame, much of it self-projected, of having somehow failed the grand story. But there were no postcards or letter joyfully received, no news of disasters or successes, no farewells to leaving soldiers. The mood was one of the war as just there, the environment of the time, one of the hardest things to convey, so important, yet so unenlivened by features; the unsaid, as has been noted before, saying a lot.


In January 1915 the war was still providing the Home Front with novel titbits, many of them relating newly-acquired customs and odd occurrences to do with communication.


Exchange of courtesies


In January 1915 the magazine The Penny War Weekly carried a couple of stories about contact across no man’s land; in the first narration, the use of the red flag and spade carry a sense of authenticity – it would be easy to do, maybe funny once or twice, and then sticking in the mind, even if not repeated. ‘We are noblemen’, though? It’s too posh, absurdly so; it smacks of the public school educated officer upholding standards of decency and playing the game, an ingrown sense of superiority underlined by the observation of British soldiers laughing at the Germans. We might almost imagine the line being written in Times New Roman. The journalistic introduction – ‘An exchange of courtesies’ suggests the slip into formality, and, by highlighting it, its improbability. Or maybe it was thrown up as an immediate reaction – in a way a mistake, but one that suited the journalistic context, and indeed the moral causus belli. Or most likely, as this was told by a soldier in the 2nd Scottish Rifles, this was a claim for superiority of the Scots over the English; possibly some of the German soldiers opposite would have observed an animosity within British ranks, just as British soldiers noted an antipathy between Saxons and Prussians. Expressed animosity between Scots and English is rare in the documentation, but hints of it are spotted here and there, Graves noting the words of an adjutant that ‘the Jocks … charge like hell – both ways’, and the frequent comments in different kinds of texts on the unintelligibility of the Scottish accent. It tends to go in one direction.




The second story, told in reported speech, proposes that either these words were used, in mocking false social informality, or much stronger terms were used. Presumably this story was conveyed in writing, so was immediately more formal than speech – the construction as a single sentence could argue either way, but the use of ‘for’ and ‘as’ propose a fairly formal awareness of planned speech. But ‘chaps’ sounds like an informal term of the kind that gets picked up in second language use, without the awareness of the level of social familiarity required for it to be acceptable. ‘Chaps’ is too familiar in this situation, where we would expect ‘Tommy’ or, conversely overfamiliar in a knowingly challenging way, ‘mate’. Alternatively it could have been used mockingly, and replied to equally mockingly, using a form of exchange more appropriate to the middle-class drawing room, and thus mocking, and defusing, the conflict situation.


Though it is tempting to assume that these have been tidied up for home consumption, this is of necessity an assumption. We have to read texts like this as multilayered. Throughout his Death of a Hero (1929) Richard Aldington uses the term ‘mucking’. Lt Claude Sisley in an article in the Athenaeum noted that documentation in print of soldiers’ speech was inherently inauthentic as it omitted the obscene expletive that was used every fourth word.




We know that ‘mucking’ stands for ‘fucking’, we know that that that could not be printed at that time and this substitution makes the text legally and socially acceptable, and we know that many – certainly all former soldiers – knew that ‘mucking’ stood for ‘fucking’. But we also know that in that situation it carried no meaning beyond shock, and very quickly lost that power, and that it was just an intensifier – for which any word could stand in. As John Brophy later pointed out, the time to worry was when it was omitted in soldiers’ speech. It is possible that many middle class soldiers, brought up in a culture of tea and Sunday school (and R H Mottram proposes this for a substantial proportion of the serving soldiers) would have preferred not to swear; did they go half way to what was expected of them without lowering their own standards of speech, and say ‘mucking’? After all, we often do not let rip with the worst that we have in our vocabulary, even under extreme stress – we say ‘Jeez’ or ‘Sugar’. Avoiding swearing may have been for some soldiers a way of maintaining personal standards in this most degrading of situations. Maybe the throw-away use of ‘noblemen’ and ‘chaps’ was a way of momentarily climbing out of the mud.


For early birds, booking is now open for the September conference. The programme will be up in the next few weeks.