Unfortunate translations and deliberate confusions

Inevitably in the environment of speedy communication and social propaganda involving more than one language, unfortunate translations made their way into print. Phrasebooks offered such delights as “Give me for sixpence of this” (Soldaten-Sprachführer 1915) or, of a pair of shoes, “They pinnts me. No confortable” (Manuel de la Conversation. c. 1916), while postcards offered “A Zeppelin thrown down in the Vardar marshes”, or “Havoc home’s by the Germans brutal’s”.



Virgin of the limp

A recent arrival on the LFWW desk is this double postcard, with views of the statue at the top of the basilica in Albert, before and after shelling. This was the subject of the famous Australian designation of the statue of the Virgin and Child as ‘Fanny Durack’, after the world-champion swimmer. The mistranslation is presumably via ‘lantern’ (the pillared canopy construction at the top of the tower) being linked with ‘lamp’, and making an unfortunate transition to ‘limp’. And ending up with something about as ironic, and nearly as funny, as ‘Fanny Durack’.


Deliberate wordplay was a continuing theme of soldiering during the war, satirising army life through the familiar, in the same way that men in the trenches belittled shells and guns through associating them with the familiars of city life: trams, trains and office machines. In these cases the references are hymns, food and the general need to pun. Freud proposed that the pun was ‘a victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability’, but also that puns admitted weakness, humour alleviating the stress of repressing unpleasant truths – these phrases pop up on the internet on any search for puns, but both ideas seem remarkably appropriate to the soldier’s lot. In an egregiously unfamiliar environment – the training camps threw together people who would otherwise have striven to keep themselves apart from each other – it is no wonder that people sought the familiar by which to both gauge the unfamiliar and to normalise it. Doing so asserted at least a semblance of control over their situation.



No known origin is given by the OED for the word ‘pun’, defined as ‘The use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words’. English verbal culture at the beginning of the twentieth century enjoyed a pun, a trope which was employed enthusiastically during the war, particularly with reference to place-names: Ploegsteert becoming ‘Plugstreet’, Ypres becoming ‘Wipers’ and so on.  ‘Passiondale’ is surely a pun, a perfect sound-match so that there was no need to anglicize the sound of it, but devoid of humour – unless the irony of pathos be considered at the edge of humour, which may be so. As a pun it is one of the strongest of the war, embracing the pain of the passion of Christ with the sense of place, sacrifice, martyrdom and lost youth. It exudes a sense of despair – Ralf Sheldon-Williams said of it ‘There was one comfort about Paaschendaele (just one), and that was that the Bosche detested it as much as we did. Dante would have given it an honourable place in his collection of hells. Fewer men were killed there by steel and shell than by mud. It was the original and authentic Slough of Despond’ (The Canadian Front in France and Flanders, 1920, p73).


‘Passiondale’ takes the name that began as Pascandale, and turns it into an echo of the Crucifixion, the hill of sorrow inverted into a valley of the reality of death. The early Latin form of the word ‘passion’ (from the OED) is ‘the condition of being acted upon (from 12th cent. in British sources) < pass- , past participial stem of patī to suffer’, and brings into the mix the sense of the soldiers being used by their superiors; the multi-layering makes the use of the word in the term ‘Passiondale’ entirely appropriate, fitting the demand of the sound of the place name, the inversion of the hill of Calvary, into the valley of Passiondale, expressing the pointlessness, the squalor, the totality of its negativity.


Though the present-day mythology of the war underlines the pathos-loaded suitability of this wordplay to the situation, we search in vain for signs that this was the soldiers’ immediate reaction to their experience. ‘Passiondale’ or ‘Passion Dale’, if it was an invention of the time, was not used widely, picking up wider use in the public domain after the war as an expression of mourning, commemoration, heroism and futility. When the usage became noted after the war its appropriateness became part of the mythology of the war.


The process seems to have begun around two years after the Armistice, though earlier evidence would be welcomed. The Graphic offered a description of ‘the Canadian troops struggling forward, the pangs of hell racking their bodies’ … ‘These things are for ever linked with the name Passchendaele, Passion Dale’ (13 November 1920, p 30). Ralf Sheldon-Williams, in The Canadian Front in France and Flanders, wrote about the disappointment of the troops in October 1917 when they learned that they were not to attack Lens: ‘It is needless to emphasise the immense disappointment, qualified only by the rumour that the corps had been chosen to move at speed to the salient and wring the heights of Paaschendaele from the enemy’ (p73). A bracketed statement following the name Paaschendaele – [afterwards christened not inappropriately Passion Dale]  – was added in a review of Sheldon-Williams’ book in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 8 December 1920, p7, the same paper later stating that ‘For many a soldier the ridge is “Passion Dale”, and it will never be anything else’ (1 February 1921 p3). Ten years on, Graham Seton-Hutchison used the term as a chapter-heading in his book Warrior (1932), the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer noting it with ‘(sic)’ (5 May 1932 p6), perhaps to expel doubts that a non-standard form should be thought inappropriate. By 1937 it was perhaps the new standard: a writer in the Northampton Mercury wrote of a ‘new British memorial to be erected in St Martin’s Cathedral, and to take the form of a stained glass window over the south porch. It will commemorate the 250,000 who perished in the trail to Passion Dale’ (6 August 1937, p6). No mention of Passchendaele. The Brandon Sun 29 January 1964, published in Brandon, Manitoba, gives a Canadian view, another generation on: ‘It [the campaign] has even been compared with the climb up Calvary, that other Passion Dale, so great was the suffering.’


But its absence from the record of soldiers’ language is noticeable: it is not in Fraser and Gibbons in 1925, or Brophy and Partridge in 1930 or 1965, or in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (copy to hand is 1974). It does not appear in the Notes and Queries correspondences of 1918 and 1921, or the extensive 1919 correspondence in The Athenaeum. A digital search for ‘Passiondale’ on the current Imperial War Museums’ website gives no results.


Lyn Macdonald in They Called it Passchendaele (1978, 1993 p4) writes: ‘In the popular mind all the agony and suffering of the salient became associated with one word. Passchendaele. For “Passchendaele” stood for all that was dismal, all that was futile, and by a strange quirk, all that was glorious in the history of warfare. … Passchendaele stands on the summit of the slopes that surround the city of Ypres. The troops called them hills.’ This raises two points: firstly the comment that words used to describe things may not match accurately the things themselves; and secondly, the power ascribed to one word, as a word. Macdonald’s book, ‘compiled from more than 600 true stories and eye-witness accounts of men and women who were there’, consistently uses the spelling ‘Passchendaele’ when quoting, and uses as a chapter heading the familiar quotation from Sassoon as ‘We Died In Hell – They Called It Passchendaele’. What the relevant section of  Sassoon’s poem Memorial Tablet (Great War) looks like in its manuscript form is:

I died in hell;

(They called it Passchendaele)

http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/items/show/10342 It was written in October 1918, before the earliest documented use of ‘Passiondale’ that we have been able to find. There is both a soldier’s and a writer’s experience of words to be seen in the difference between the place-names, ‘hell’ used by ‘I’, and ‘Passchendaele’ used by ‘they’. Who were Sassoon’s ‘they’? Impersonal or unknown, but ‘they’ rather than ‘we’.


Note how the spelling differs from Sheldon-Williams’ 1920 ‘Paaschendaele’ to Macdonald’s ‘Passchendaele’ (the Aberdeen Press and Journal spelled it with a double ‘a’ in 1920 and a double ‘s’ in 1921); many would not notice it, and we are perhaps more thrown by the fact that the modern local spelling is Passendale, with no ‘sh’ sound at all. And this itself shows what is happening: Paaschendaele and Passchendaele are pronounced the same way in the Anglophone accent. The easiest way to transcribe this is ‘Passiondale’, fitting a model of folk etymology that has given the English language such gems as ‘sparrow-grass’, ‘alligator pears’, ‘bonfire’, ‘step-daughter’, ‘bridegroom’, or one offered by Archibald Sparke in the Athenaeum correspondence: the slang for the Royal Army Medical Corps, ‘poultice wallahs’, becoming ‘poultice swallowers’. ‘Passiondale’ is better than most, as its associations match up almost as well as its sounds, the mismatch of the hill and the dale accidentally, but fittingly, adding to and reinforcing the rhetoric of irony that was so indicative of the war. But evidence that it was used in 1917 is, so far, in short supply.




A very good example of different Englishes in use among the English-speaking nations. While writers in the British Isles were latecomers to the use of the spelling ‘Passiondale’, Australians were using it well before the end of the war. The Camberwell and Hawthorn Advertiser 10 May 1918 (p3) published a  letter from Pte Stanley Gee, who wrote, ‘At present I am at the Australian Infantry Base depot, after being in hospital for a few weeks with a wound in the head, which I received at Ypres, at the foot of Passiondale Ridge. … At Passiondale Ridge we all thought that Fritz had evacuated part of the ridge, so we sent out a daylight patrol, …’ The language here is a mixture of formal and informal, not untypical of soldiers’ letters when a large amount of information is being given, a combination of thought out syntax and slang (though it may have been edited): ‘We came up within 20 yards of a ‘pill box’ at Pollygon Wood, when a German came to the door, drew his revolver, and shot a 29th battalion man dead. Of course, we done the rest.’


The World (Tasmania) 18 September 1918 (p3) carried a very short story about two wounded soldiers in London, both identified as cockneys, and both wearing ‘butcher-blue’ (butcher’s blue, the colour of butchers’ aprons, also used for the uniforms of convalescing soldiers). Their reminiscences include “We’d moved up norf before that, though I heard tell of the gas from a R.A.M.C. bloke. Our lot was one of the first on the Passiondale Ridge.”


After this the use of ‘Passiondale’ moves quickly and securely into domestic usage – there is the ‘Passiondale Poultry Farm’ (Maitland Weekly Mercury – New South Wales, 1 November 1919, p16), as a house name – “Passiondale”, Tomingley (The DubboLiberal and Macquarie Advocate – New South Wales, 22 February 1924, p4), and as the name of a another property, possibly a farm, at Fosters Valley (The Bathurst Times – New South Wales, 14 August 1925, p3). At the National Spring Fair in Palmerston, New Zealand, September 1932,   two bulls were shown, bearing the names ‘Passiondale Prince’ and ‘Passiondale Count’ (Horowhenua Chronicle, 23 September 1932, p3). The same establishment exhibited bulls named ‘Passiondale Phar Lap’ and ‘Passiondale Beau Ideal’ three years later.


Did these developments, especially the use of ‘Passiondale’ as a house name, indicate an attitude in New Zealand and Australia towards place-names of battles that was different from attitudes in Britain? There has been considerable research into the use of place-names from the First World War as personal names, but little on the use of such names as names for domestic residences; they would surely be indicative of changing attitudes.




A Dictionary of Military Terms, 1918

E S Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms is a curious creation. Dated 15 May 1918, its preface states that ‘The science of warfare has progressed so rapidly since July, 1914, and so many specialized terms have been transplanted from European soil, that the usual type of reference work is inadequate. It must be supplemented with something more technical.’ Yet a brief thumb through its pages indicates a book that embraces a vast potential readership, ranging from officers destined for the trenches to historians of India and students of Thucydides and Caesar. Edward Farrow (1855-1926), from the title page, was ‘late Assistant Instructor of Tactics’ at West Point, and he dedicated the book to ‘the class of 1876’, who were presumably his own colleagues on graduation; he was also the author of Mountain scouting: a hand-book for officers and soldiers on the frontiers (1881) and Farrow’s military encyclopedia : a dictionary of military knowledge (1885). Farrow’s research and writing was extensive – the three-volume military encyclopedia runs to well over two thousand pages, encompasses military items and anecdotes from all ages of world history, and indicates an enjoyment of language, and occasional dry wit. We see, for example:

Poltroon – a coward; a dastard; one who has no courage.

with an offer of three possible etymologies,

Harsegaye – a kind of demi-lance, introduced about 1114. It is now obsolete.


Pibroch – Music played on the bagpipe, which has a wonderful power in exciting the martial instincts and hilarity of the Highlanders. Its rhythm is so irregular, and its notes in the quicker parts so much jumbled together, that a stranger has difficulty in following the modulations or reconciling his ear to them.


Farrow’s interest in etymology occasionally appears in the Dictionary: Muschite – A local designation applied to the early hand-culverins, and which gave its form to the word mousquet or musket. Blighty – A military slang expression for England, home: a corruption of the Hindustani Biláti. With these interests in mind Farrow’s eclecticism in the Dictionary of Military Terms is not surprising, and though he concentrates here on terms in English, Latin and French, many of the entries cover non-European weapons (Sardar – In the East Indies, a term commonly used signifying a chief or leader) or pre-modern (Primipilar – of or pertaining to the captain of the vanguard of a Roman army). Many of the terms and definitions are arresting, and linguistically informative:

Bat – A kind of pack-saddle; and hence a bat-horse was a baggage-horse bearing a bat or pack, and a bat-man was a servant in charge of the horse and bat.

Leg-wise – In cavalry, said of a horse, when he obeys the lightest correctly combined action of the rider’s legs.

Rebiffer – In the French service, a term meaning to have a soldier-like bearing; the same meaning as brace at the United States Military Academy.


There are familiar slang expressions, such as ‘corduroy road’, ‘tin hat’, ‘ladies from hell’, ‘pom-pom’, ‘grousing’, ‘quarterbloke‘, ‘lance-jack’, ‘scrounger’ (and ‘to jawbone’ = get by talking’), and ‘poilu’, and also some French slang expressions less familiar to non-francophones:

Bleu – The French military slang expression for a young soldier, until after he has passed the school of the platoon.

Chambard – At the École Polytechnique, the act of smashing up the furniture, etc., of new cadets.

And there are terms which are embedded in the experience of the American military, such as ‘Milk Formation – A slang phrase for a battalion or squadron (usually the third) where the companies composing it are I. K. L. M. These letters may be transposed so as to spell Milk.’


Others are questionable, such as:

Ace – the rank given to an airman, when he has destroyed five enemies.

‘Rank’ is maybe not the right word: ‘honorific’ perhaps.

Jeanjean – In the French service, a popular or slang name for a conscript or recruit. (‘Jeanjean’ is translated as  ‘simpleton, ninny’ by Olivier Leroy, A Glossary of French Slang, 1922, but it does not appear in François Dechelette L’Argot des Polilus, 1918, or Albert Dauzat, L’Argot de la Guerre, 1918).

Grivier – In the French army, the popular slang term for a soldier of the line.

This does not appear in Leroy, Dechelette or Dauzat.


Inevitably there are a few, very few, errors – Joe-emma given as a trench mortar (should be ‘toc-emma’) and Josephine for a French 75-milimetre gun (a ‘soixante-quinze’, or Julot, though this was more literary according to Dauzat, as was Josephine for the bayonet). Other entries indicate that some of Farrow’s sources were of doubtful reliability such as Alboche – A slang term of the trenches applied to all countries having German affinities. Fraser and Gibbons propose that ‘Alboche’ was a post-1871 term, applied at first to the people of Alsace – ‘Al-boches’, as it were. Brophy and Partridge do not give it at all, and documentation of it during wartime is very rare. Farrow gives Josephine as ‘A slang term of the trenches signifying a 75-milimeter gun’. In actuality it was the common French term for the bayonet (Dauzat). And Fat Bertha was more commonly ‘Big Bertha’. But against this most slang terms show an up to date knowledge of soldier-speak as it was in 1918:

Fanny – In the parlance of the British soldier, the name given to the women of the F.A.N.Y., or First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

 Dock – A slang term used by soldiers at the front or in the trenches, meaning a  military hospital.

Hairbrush grenade – a racket bomb used to demoralize the enemy, the noise created by its explosion being very great.

Na Pooh – A slang expression used by British soldiers, meaning nothing doing; also, to express the end of anything, as to be na poohed by a shell. A corruption of the French phrase,  “il n’y a plus”. [The spelling is not common though].


There are some interesting specifics:

Jam-pot Bombs – Bombs made on the spot by filling jam tins with shrapnel bullets, scrap iron, powdered glass and grass, etc. [with details of the explosive, detonator and fuse]

Drooping – In artillery, a term applied to the wearing away of the muzzle of smooth-bore guns, especially bronze guns, after long firing.

There are more than a few curiosities too, especially of military officialese:

Disallowances – Deductions made from the military estimates, when the charges against the Public appear incorrect.

Disgarnish – To deprive of troops necessary for defense; to dismantle.

Veteranize – In the United States, to reënlist for service as a soldier.

and some less well-known terms:

Gongwallas – A term commonly applied to the militia in India.

Grubber – The name usually applied to the entrenching implement employed in trench work and to provide any hasty cover.

Hedgehogs – in trench warfare, a temporary protection rolled over the parapet and anchored. These are usually made of iron.

Tommy Atkins – A familiar term given by soldiers of the British army to their pocket-ledger or small account book.


The technicality of some terms would be beyond the lay-person:

Washout – In aëronautics, the difference between angles of incidence of almost separate aërofoils, distinguished from the decalage in that with the washout the comparative degrees are formed on the same plane surface. [Good luck with this: more simply, the ‘washout’ is the angle at which the air comes off the surface of the plane, as opposed to the ‘wash-in’, the angle at which it is received on the surface]


Farrow’s selection, spelling and explanations of British, French and American slang give a slant on an American view of soldiers’ language, some of them coming from American military college slang:

Beast – The slang name given to a new cadet when he first arrives at the United States Military Academy.

Fast animal – A slang term used at the United States Military Academy, meaning a Plebe who puts on airs.

And occasionally the differences between American and British slang are presented:

Over there – A slang term used in America in reference to the European battle-fields in the great war; more especially the Western Front; the same as out there, the slang term used in England.

Found on Math means found deficient in mathematics.

and this is clearly American, rather than British, English.

Cootie – A slang term, in the camps and trenches, for louse.

has disappeared in British English, but is still in use in America.


The passage of time inevitably creates peculiarities:

Savate – A sort of punishment given a soldier, in the French army, by his comrades (really a severe spanking). The term also means the French system of boxing. [From the salacious magazine Illustrated Bits it is pretty clear that, in Britain at least, ‘spanking’ carried sexual connotations at this time]; and aëroplane is spelt thus throughout – seeing that Farrow also uses the spelling reënlistment, an obsolete pronunciation is indicated.


With all compilations and glossaries, there is a desire to know more. When did the Tolenon (levered arm with a box holding 20 men to shoot over a fortified wall) fall out use? Was there really a Toe Parade (inspection of the feet) twice a week? How did soldiers use hedgehogs? Was there any linguistic problem about the Americans using a Heinrich Aëroplane? Did anybody Bootlick rather than ‘arselick’? Why has the term Thalweg (the line connecting the lowest points of the sections of a valley) not passed from map-reading into general parlance? Was a Tétine (French term for a dent on a cuirass by a rifle bullet) a mark of pride or doom? Why did Richard II prohibit the use of the Lancegay?


As always, what we really need is that on-to-one map of the world over time.







A scoop

We are rather late-comers to the quest to find the earliest documentation of war-words; ‘trench-coat’ looked promising, as did ‘home front’, but nothing came of it. However, we hereby wave the flag of Languages and the First World War over the earliest yet documentation of that rather unwarlike word – “kinky”. Improbable but there it is; currently the earliest documentation in the OED stands at 1959, but we can push it back by 43 years.


Magnus Hirschfeld begins the introduction to The Sexual History of the World War (1946) with a proposal that while there was no change in the kind of sexual activity in a society on the outbreak of war, there might be perceived a huge change in the degree. A number of salacious magazines in print in Britain before the war used the opportunity of the conflict to publish cartoons of highly exaggerated figures of women in uniform, and also to continue what was clearly an editorially created correspondence page dealing with stories of cross-dressing, spanking, high heels and tight corsets, now opportunistically extending it into the military experience. This included in 1916 a reference to British papers in the early days of the war reporting that ‘German soldiers had been taken captive wearing ladies’ lingerie under their clothes, which they had looted from French wardrobes’ (Illustrated Bits 12 August 1916), and a few weeks later a writer under the name ‘Sapper’ who claimed to be a soldier and ‘simply love[s] to wear tightly-laced corsets and high heels’. The correspondence page continued through the conflict, and by 1918 had grown to two pages, now embracing tales of conscientious objectors being subjected to punitive cross-dressing, and referencing the drag artists who performed in concert parties. No doubt it was still mainly fictional, but equally doubtless catered for real readers with an actual desire to read such material.


But to the word. Illustrated Bits on 30 September 1916 carried a response to Sapper’s letter, headed ‘A bit kinky’, and signed ‘Tight Lacing Mad’; the writer, also claiming to be in the forces, wished he had been born a girl, and stated ‘I suppose this is a “kink” of mine’. He claimed to have enjoyed wearing 18-inch corsets, was ‘never happy unless wearing them’, and was ‘quite miserable without my corsets in the army’. The same paper on 2 December 1916 carried a response to this, headlined ‘Another kinky one’, and signed ‘A lover of fine things’, the writer stating that he wished he ‘had been born a girl instead of a boy’.


By 1918 the magazine, probably just a step ahead of the censor, had changed its name to Bits of Fun; on 7 September that year there was a long letter from a soldier who, having spent three years in France, and having taken part in many concerts, though never as a girl, acquired from a friend the ‘kink’ of dressing in women’s clothes. A week later a further letter under the heading ‘Another Strange “Kink”’ began: ‘Dear Sirf [sic], – I notice several of your readers have written confessing their various kinks, so I thought perhaps my special kink might be interesting.’ The kink in question was wearing ‘female underclothing’ and ‘having a baby’s “dummy” teat in my mouth’.


So, wartime slang, in a civilian paper, with texts claiming to have been written by soldiers, using ‘kink’ and ‘kinky’ in a sexual context; of questionable veracity of course, but openly acknowledging a readership for this kind of material. The whole question of the sexualizing of the war is currently under research, with intended publication next year.


This post owes much to Lynda Mugglestone’s work on Andrew Clark’s collecting of words during the war, particularly in the area of the diminutive ‘-ette’. The most well-known diminutive form that emerged during the conflict was ‘munitionette’, which owed a lot to the form ‘suffragette’, both in the model of the word and the sense of women taking some power in society. But Lynda Mugglestone points out the link made in this suffix between the female and the sense of the ‘less’ or the ‘imitation’; by 1918 people in Britain were familiar with a wave of imitation fabrics which had been characterised by names that carried both these senses – ‘leatherette’ from 1880, ‘silkette’ and ‘moirette’ from 1895, and ‘suedette’ from 1915. Popular journalism extended the belittling power of ‘ette’ to create some startling neologisms: Woman’s Weekly in autumn 1914 ran a page of ‘Husbands’ Storyettes’, while a writer to the Derby Daily Telegraph criticised an editorial by calling it a ‘leaderette’, and Punch on 14 April 1915 described the German Crown Prince’s daughter as a ‘burglarette’. Reaction to the women’s suffragist movement had in 1913 and 1914 given rise to the terms ‘arsonette’ and even ‘hungerette’, which provided in turn a model for the ‘munitionettes’ and a number of other terms, including ‘peacettes’, ‘farmerettes’ and ‘canteenettes’.


The source for this construction is of course French, which during the war provided English-speaking soldiers with other terms ending with ‘–ette’: ‘flechette’, the heavy dart dropped from planes in the early part of the conflict, and the ‘omelette’ (in the estaminet). Already there were also the sniper’s favourite – the silhouette above the parapet, the French officers’ epaulette, and the French destroyer Escopette (built 1900). Henri Barbusse in Le Feu (1916), translated as Under Fire, makes frequent use of ‘banquette de tir’ (shooting step), ‘musette’ (haversack), and ‘fourchette’, a slang term for bayonet (similar to pig-sticker). Olivier Leroy’s A Glossary of French Slang (1922) also has ‘arbalète’ for a rifle.


‘-Ette’ would normally be recognised as feminine in French (again the link between feminine gender and diminution), but, after ‘cigarette’, the most outstanding ‘-ette’ word from the First World War has to be the bayonet, ‘baïonnette’ in French. Much fetishised in French civilian wartime popular culture, the bayonet was given the name ‘Rosalie’ in an erotic song by Theodore Botrel, written in 1914.  One verse chosen, not entirely at random, reads:


Mais elle est irrésistible

Quand elle surgit, terrible,

– Verse à boire ! –

Toute nue : baïonnette… on !

Buvons donc !


But she is irresistible

When she arises, terrible,

“Pour and drink!” –

All naked: bayonet … one!

Let’s drink!

According to Barbusse the poilus did not rate the term ‘Rosalie’ highly, Fitzwater Wray’s 1917 translation stating that it was a phrase for ‘padded luneys’. Eric Partridge, however, felt that the French soldiers came round to it in the end.


But, taking the story back further, the bayonet was originally a female weapon, and an empowering one too, at least according to one source. The siege of Bayonne in 1130-31 may have been the origin of this term (see picture), though the word is not known in English before the end of the 16th century; Brachet and Dussouchet’s 1873 An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language trans Kitchin (1873) does not offer a date, but confirms Bayonne as the origin. The caption to the picture states clearly that this was a women’s weapon – this is from an issue of the French wartime magazine La Baïonnette (29 June 1916) dedicated to … Rosalie. It states that the ‘Bayonnette’ was a simple knife fixed to a shaft, with which the women of Bayonne defended their city.


How did Gertie come to wear velvet?

We are reposting a few posts from the former site, so that these become more widely available.

The Anglicisation of placenames in France and Belgium raises the question of how these came about; the humour of the result is so good that it should, but often does not, lead us to look for the process of word-creation. There is little evidence for anyone saying or writing ‘let’s call this place Wipers’, so we are thrown back on internal or circumstantial pointers. Wipers is the most well-known Anglicisation, but the place was also called ‘Eeep’ and ‘Eeprees’; the first example comes from John Buchan writing in 1919, who said that ‘“Wipers” [was] not a name given by the British private soldier. He called it “Eeep.” “Wipers” was an officer’s name, gladly seized on by journalists and by civilians at home’. [St Barnabas Pilgrimage to the Menin Gate, 1927. p8]. Veteran RFA gunner (i.e. non-officer) Percy Bryant interviewed in 1975 pronounced it ‘Eeprees’ [IWM interviews 24862].

Given that there was little contact between British soldiers and Flemish-speakers, the greater likelihood is that exposure to the name of Ypres was through its French pronunciation, which would have come into English as ‘Eepre’, or reading the French or Flemish spelling (Ypres/Ieper), which would have given ‘Eepres’ or ‘Yeper’; the local Flemish pronunciation is more like ‘Eeper’. ‘Wipers’ seems to be a deliberate joke based on the first letter of the French spelling, while the standard English pronunciation, with a bit of knowledge as to how French pronunciation works, would have given Buchan’s proposed ‘other ranks’ version, ‘Eep’; with a bit less knowledge of French, but making a good attempt, this would easily come out as ‘Eeprees’. It is worth remembering here that there is plenty of evidence for British soldiers being prepared to have a go at French, and in many cases to set themselves to try to learn a bit: in a recorded dramatization In the Trenches directed by Major A E Rees in 1917, which has both authenticating and absurdly unrealistic aspects, cockney Private Reginald ‘Tippy’ Winter is spotted reading a French manual (of which there were several cheap versions printed, with pronunciation guides), though his chum Ginger claims he is doing it only to be able to speak to French girls. An Anglicisation such as Sally on the Loose (Sailly sur la Lys) depends on understanding ‘sur’ and ‘la’; not much, but at least some awareness of French.


As regards Ypres though, there are two other important factors: the medieval Ypres Tower at Winchelsea, which Fraser & Gibbons (1925) point out, was always called the ‘Wipers Tower’ or ‘Wypers Tower’; and it is easy to underestimate the influence on this question of the Wipers Times. So, from the example of Ypres we see the joke version coming from officer-level wordplay based on the written/printed word, and the ‘have a go’ version coming from spoken language from the other ranks; but ‘Wipers’ was used so widely in the press (from November 1914) that it quickly spread throughout soldiers in training before they got to Flanders.


A more clear etymology can be seen in the wonderfully dismissive change from Albert to ‘Bert’; in this case the French pronunciation of the town is nothing like the Anglicisation, lending weight to the proposal that this case derived from the written or printed word. The French Mouquet Ferme (Moo-cow Farm), Armentieres (Armentears), Ingouville (Inky Bill) and Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas) clearly are examples of Anglicisation from sound, as are the Flemish Wytschaete (White Sheet) and Dickebusch (Dickybush). But the Anglicisation of Bois Gernier as Boys Grenyer depends on spelling, as do Doignes (Dogs Knees), and Doingt (Doing It), the French pronunciation not resembling the Anglicised version. Godewaersvelde (Gertie wears velvet) is less clear, but the Flemish spoken version would have been fairly difficult for the untutored British soldier to unravel, so the Anglicisation here possibly comes via both paths. In any case the anglicised versions travelled along spoken paths with speed, and settled quickly to what sat comfortably in the various accents of the British Army as Hoop Lane (Houplines), Plugstreet (Ploegsteert) and the delightfully pragmatic Pop (Poperinghe). What remains is to see if there were variations emerging from the various accents and dialects within the British and Imperial forces: did similarities to names familiar to battalions before 1916 influence or provide variations on place-names?

Native American codetalkers in World War One

The use of Native American codetalkers, e.g. the Navajos, in World War Two by the US military is by now quite well known.  What is lesser known, although hardly a secret, is that the US military also employed codetalkers in World War One towards the very end of the conflict.   The use was successful enough that the United States tried it again in World War Two, this time on a much larger scale.

What exactly was codetalking?   In the case of the Native Americans, it was translating battlefield instructions, e.g. orders, from English into their own languages and conveying them by telephone, radio, etc., to another speaker of that language on the other end, who would then translate them back into English.  The “codes,” if you want to call them that, were essentially special words made up in the respective language that were needed on the battlefield.   The Choctaws for example, used “bad air” when they wanted to say “gas” and “scalp” when they wanted to say “casualties” because “gas” and “casualties” were words that did not necessarily exist in their own language.  Those Choctaws that knew the special vocabulary were codetalkers—those that didn’t were not.  Said another way, not every  Choctaw in World War One would have been a codetalker.

The abovementioned Choctaws are the most famous of the World War One  codetalkers.   As members of the 36th Division (made up on many Oklahoma-based Native American tribes), they first conducted operational  codetalking during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France on 26-27 October 1918. The end result was the US capture from the Germans of an area called Forest Farm.  The Germans, who had the uncanny knack of knowing when the Americans would be attacking, were caught completely by surprise this time.

Further research has shown that the Cherokees codetalkers from the 30thDivision (composed of many Native American tribes from the southeastern part of the United States) were actually used before the Choctaws—on 7-8 October 1918 in a successful assault against the German Hindenburg Line in France.   There are also reports and claims that the Comanche, Osage, and Sioux tribes also engaged in codetalking about this time.  Unfortunately, there is no “smoking gun” out there to prove any of these three beyond doubt. It is of course possible that further research will find that gun and will find other tribes as well who did World War One  codetalking.

Finally, the United States should be congratulated for bringing recognition to its codetalkers.  We have to ask why other nations have been reluctant to publicly reward  their own codetalkers.   While these other World War One combatants (except for Canada) did not have Native Americans of their own, they certainly must have seen the advantages of passing messages on the battlefield in an obscure language.   Many of the combatants, e.g., the British, had colonies of their own, with their choice of obscure tongues to utilize.  Yet only the Americans, it seems,  are recognizing their people.  At the time of the 100th Anniversary of World War One, it is time for other nations to be more forthcoming about the work of their codetalkers in this conflict.

Gregory J. Nedved is Vice President of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, and a historian for the US Department of Defense.