Sailors and Sodgers

One of the delights of Belfast this past weekend was the opportunity to visit HMS Monmouth and to talk to some of her crew, and a chance, to be grasped with grappling-hook tenacity, to talk language. Particularly to find out which terms, current or made more widely known during the First World War, are still in use. ‘Bloke’ (captain)? No. ‘Pond’, referring to any sea, not just the Atlantic? No. ‘Monkey’s island’, no, but ‘monkey’s castle’, yes, referring to the bridge. ‘Jimmy the One’, yes. And, best of all, ‘pongo’ for a soldier, which elicited the comment, ‘where the army goes, the pongoes’. It’s good to see that the Senior Service’s feelings about the Regular Army have not dimmed. The same visit brought to light a copy of A Little Ship by ‘Taffrail’ (Captain Henry Taprell Dorling), published in 1918, in which a skipper berates his men by calling them ‘sodgers’, a term for soldiers which dates back to about 1300 (OED).


The idea of expressing contempt for an incompetent sailor by calling him a soldier has the excellent extension of ‘a soldier’s wind’ (a wind that anyone could sail in), which appears in Fraser and Gibbons, but this was not the worst epithet in use in the Navy. Naturally we asked, and the logistics officer of HMS Monmouth obliged by opening up a pearl oyster of  etymology.




But, surely, this appears in such innocuous stuff as Billy Bunter? ‘Yaroo, geroff, you toe-rags!’, no? Perhaps yes, but this navy term was a different kind of ‘toe-rag’ from the slang expression for an old sock, and by extension a tramp or vagrant or someone who has walked so much that both shoes and socks have worn out. In fact not a toe-rag at all, but a tow-rag. The officers’ quarters are traditionally in the stern of a ship, the logistics officer explained, and the ratings’ in the bows, including their toilet arrangements, because in sailing days the wind usually blew from behind the ship, taking away noisome smells from the body of the ship. Similarly the heads (toilet arrangements, specifically a place to sit with part of the body hanging over the water) were at the front so that the oncoming water could wash the ship clean. In those heady days (sorry) the service of toilet paper was performed by a rag, tied to a rope, which after use could be let down into the bow waves to be washed by the passage of water. The ‘tow-rag’.


All this would have fallen sweetly on the ears of Captain Ralph Crooke, commander during the First World War of HMS Caroline, subject of our second research visit; HMS Caroline, the only surviving ship to have fought at the Battle of Jutland, is now moored in Belfast, and well worth a visit. Captain Crooke kept his own handwritten order book, of which Order No 31 was ‘The use of such lubberly and unseamanlike language as ‘tie up’ instead of ‘make fast’ is to be sternly repressed’. Note ‘lubberly’, not ‘land-lubberly’, 20180520_130030‘lubber’ being a clumsy fellow, and in use for two hundred years as a general term of disapprobation before it came to have specific nautical, or anti-nautical, connotations. The indication of territory difference by choice of words is the essence of the plurality of languages. But where terms such as ‘heads’, ‘flat’, ‘mess’ and ‘galley’ are in use, how does the printed, published and read word fit in? A survey of the contemporary books placed in Capt Crooke’s bookcase revealed that he was supposedly fascinated by Swiss Family Robinson and Westward Ho! (both two copies), while the ward-room bookcase showed several books by female authors, The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sarah Tooley, The Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli, Girls Together by Louise Mack, Daisy Chain by Charlotte M Yonge, The Channings by Mrs Henry Ward, and Little Women by Louisa M Alcott (but sadly no Angela Brazil).


A little further along the corridor there is a ‘flat’ (an area in the ship) holding the cold-weather gear, known as ‘dapple-suits’, but looking exactly like ‘duffle coats’. ‘Duffle’ was a Belgian cloth, but the Admiralty insisted on the use of British-made cloth for these coats and trousers.


One more: ‘duffoes’, which Taffrail states as coming from ‘duff’ (steamed or boiled pudding), and describing sailors who liked to eat. This rounds the whole lot off as a ‘duff-bag’ is both a cloth bag for making puddings, and a sailor’s bag, the mini-version of which we used to have as kids, made of plasticised cloth and called ‘duffle-bags’. The OED definition of ‘duff-bag’ goes on:

‘(hence) something resembling this bag or its means of closure, esp. a handle formed by tying the ends of a neckerchief to the tapes of a jumper, used as a means of rescuing a sailor from water.’ Definitely not a tow-rag.


Programme for the 2018 conference


We are happy to present the programme for the Languages and the First World War conference 2018, at Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P 3EU on 10th September, and the Brussels campus of the KU Leuven, Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 26, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium on 12th September.

Booking can now be done for the two days separately via



London Day (9 – 6.15):

Arf a mo cards copyMark Connelly, Professor of History, University of Kent – The language of guidebooks to the Western Front, 1919-1939

Kayla Campana, The University of Central Florida – The gendering of terms for nurses’ trauma

Ugo Pavan Dala Torre, independent scholar – The language of Italian disabled ex-servicemen


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


Julia Ribeiro, Université Paris Nanterre – The choice of poetic language and the establishment of identities and communities in the First World War

Mādālina Serbov, Ovidius University of Constanţa, România – The Lipovenian-Russian comunities in the Danube Delta during the First Worl War

Fiona Houston, University of Aberdeen– The lexical development of the word ‘propaganda’




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

Gegely Bodok, Clio Institute, Budapest – Laughed Death: humour and jokes in Hungary during the First World War

Jonathon Green, independent scholar – Swearing in T E Lawrence’s The Mint



Cristina Rogojina, University Ovidius of Constanta, Romania – Romanian writers who fought in the First World War and how the war influenced their writing

Lucinda Borket-Jones, Open University – Warring tongues: ‘Kultur’ versus ‘culture’ in writing of the First World War (Ford Madox Ford)

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

Guido Latré, Professor of English Literature and Culture, Louvain-la-Neuve – Languages and cultures in Van Walleghem’s war diaries

Meic Birtwistle, independent scholar – Welsh impromptu songs for soldiers on leave




Brussels Day (9.15 – 6.10)


Marguerite Helmers, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh (keynote speaker) – The rhetoric of avoidance


Gwendal Piégais – Russian interpreters operating in France during the war

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

Stefano Banno, University of Trento – Italian in the Berliner Lautarchiv


Signalling in the First World War – Vintage signals team demonstration

Iaroslav Golubinov, independent scholar – Slang words for food in 1917 Russia – video presentation

Admin officer



Alison Fell, Professor of French Cultural History, University of Leeds (keynote speaker) – Culture clashes: Belgian refugees in Yorkshire



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

Dr Sarah Duncan, independent scholar – ‘Dear Little Scalliwag’:  Letters from a father to his children, 1915-16


refugeesFabian van Samang, senior editor of the ‘Journal of the League for Human Rights’ –
Armenia and the language of genocide


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


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

Lucy Moore, Leeds Museums & Galleries – Museums, languages & commemoration: a case study from Leeds


We hope to see you at the conference, which certainly pushes the subject area into new and exciting territories. There will be opportunities for discussion and questions, and we are discussing with an international publisher the production of a volume of essays from the conference.

Do feel free to contact us with any questions.






Conference Call for Papers: Where Do We Go From Here?

Belgians B copy

At the start of the First World War most British people were convinced that most, if not all, Belgians spoke French. From the third weekend of August 1914 onwards and especially in October tens of thousands of Belgians arrived on British shores, by Christmas approximately 100,000 having sought refuge in Britain. They were met by a vast wave of empathy, fulfilled a very useful role for British propaganda and reminded people across the country why Britain had gone to war in the first place, but the many destitute families, three quarters of whom had come from mainly Dutch-speaking Flanders, were initially mostly addressed in French. Many charity organisations, semi-official associations and government officials soon resorted to an equal opportunities approach and attempted to address Belgians in Britain in three languages, English, French and Dutch.


The Belgian community in exile in the Netherlands was mainly accommodated in Dutch, whereas Belgians in France – a much larger proportion of them spoke French – were addressed in French. On the matter of languages used to receive and accommodate the refugees the three main destination countries differed, adding to the diverging experiences of the respective communities in exile.

Throughout the Centenary years the transnational history of Belgian refugees and the First World War has been receiving increasing attention, especially in relation to those in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. Many (inter)national, regional and local history projects have emerged, each with its own valuable contribution to the overall history of First World War displacement. Many academic research projects have appeared too, resulting in numerous publications referring to Belgians in exile, but only few publications have covered the specific history in detail. There is still ample ground to cover the history of the Belgian refugees.

Belgians C

On 13 September, the day after the Brussels leg of the Languages and the First World War conference, Christophe Declercq and Julian Walker will be the hosts of a one-day symposium on Belgian refugees. The aim of this one-day symposium is therefore to position the displacement and temporary settlement of Belgian refugees during the First World War within a double framework. Firstly, within the context of the Centenary period and its local projects or academic output, papers are invited that expand existing knowledge and/or provide context and analysis to ongoing research. Secondly, the symposium aims to open up new pathways into the histories of the respective Belgian refugee communities, in particular within a comparative context or with a focus on legacy.

The symposium will aim at a double outcome. First, further dissemination and sharing of information should place participants in a better place to progress with issues they might be experiencing, and should take stock of the current state of research into Belgian refugees, an important requirement before moving onto a post-centenary lifetime. Second, questions are being asked about the darker edges of the entire history of the various Belgian communities in exile, not least their return, and about the legacy, not least those who remained in the host country, or returned there.

Although the symposium aims to reflect on past (hi)stories, contributions that relate historical research Belgian refugees to current-day refugee situations are encouraged to submit. Further details about the Call for Papers, Call for Posters, and Call for Panels can be found below.

 Call For Papers 

Papers are welcomed that provide a perspective on existing research, elaborate on ongoing projects or uncover further primary sources on Belgian refugees. Papers can be holistic as well as interdisciplinary, drawing on research such as memory studies, reception studies, trauma studies and linguistic research, but not exclusively. The event will very likely focus mainly on Belgian refugees in exile in the UK and on those in the Netherlands.

The aim of the symposium is to attract academic papers that look into spatial and/or temporal analyses, including (but not exclusively):

  • First World War Belgian refugees’ communities other than those UK and NL, more in particular France and Switzerland.
  • The repatriation, return and resettlement issues of Belgian refugees from end of 1918 onwards. (Was a level of reintegration needed? Differences in local activism between the reception of refugees in their host nation and upon return home.)
  • Comparison between Belgian refugees’ displacement and resettlement in 1918/1919 and 1944/1945.
  • Comparison between xenophobic responses that emerged over time and today’s refugee situation.

Papers are invited on more thematic approaches as well, including (but not exclusively):

  • Social, political, cultural, religious, financial or industrial networks relevant to the histories of Belgian refugees (readily available networks before, newly established during, and those lasting until well after the First World War).
  • The spatial and/or social mobility of the Belgian refugees, within host nations and across countries.
  • The influence of early repatriation efforts and organisations (autumn 1914) on the image of the Belgians and their temporary sojourn.
  • The influence of the many parts of the fragmented Belgian nation on its post-war socio-political strivings.
  • Refugee stigma in the years after the Armistice.
  • Bonding with the reception country (specific networks or associations, lifelong Anglo-Saxon affiliations, intermarriages, pensions…).
  • Why were refugee stories weakened or even silenced in family histories and in general histories? (The legacy of the First World War soldier – Belgian or British – or returned forced labourer, silent at home, and how it affected family refugee history? The complex reconstruction of a fragmented Belgian nation in which no space was available for the imagined communities that were the Belgian communities in exile?).
  • Analyses of stories about those remained in their host country after 1919, or returned there in the years immediately after the First World War.

Panels are equally invited, focusing ideally on several papers that share specific characteristics (this can be spatial, temporal but also along specific features of a Belgian exile community, such as social class).

As the symposium aims to provide a platform where interested parties can exchange information on their projects and interests with relevant other interested parties, research projects – academic as well as local ones – are invited to present a poster during the break sessions.

The language of the symposium is English.

Papers are invited

  • for 25 minute presentations, send a 300 word abstract and brief bio;
  • for a one-hour panel, send a 300 word proposal and a 100-word bio per participant;
  • for a poster, send a summary of your project or what you would like to present.

The deadline for abstracts, panel proposals and posters is Thursday 7 June, to be sent to Confirmation of acceptance Monday 18 June.

Organising committee: Christophe Declercq, Julian Walker.  @belgianrefugees @languagesFWW

Both the Letteren department of KU Leuven, Brussels Campus, and the Centre for Reception Studies have kindly agreed to supporting the event.

Peter Cahalan has kindly accepted to act as honorary chairman of the scientific committee. The scientific committee will be fully disclosed with the second Call for Papers (mid-May). The symposium expresses its sincere gratitude to Pat Heron and Marleen Van Ouytsel, who both did not live to enjoy the fruits of their efforts in relation to Belgian refugees research and related commemorations.

Belgians A copy

The images are from De Gerlache De Gomery’s Belgium in Wartime, 1917; the views show Belgian refugees arriving at Amsterdam and at Ostend Harbour Station; the drawing of refugees at the Aldwych is by W Hatherell.


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.