The First World War: A War Of Words.


A while ago I posted something on the etymology of execution, how the death penalty has found its way into modern conversation via phrases and expressions used every day when so many of us have no idea of their origin. Today we’ll be looking at the etymology of war, the First World War, specifically words and phrases commonly used by British soldiers that are still in everyday use.

Have you ever felt ‘lousy’? Or ‘crummy’? Have you ever been ‘chatting’ or has something or someone unpleasant struck you as being ‘chatty’, just not in the conversational sense? Well. the clue’s in the first one of these everyday words. ‘Lousy’ is self-explanatory. Living outdoors, in large numbers and often dirty conditions meant soldiers regularly attracted lice. Hence, they felt ‘lousy’ or ‘chatty.’ A ‘chat was an individual louse and ‘chatting meant going to a delousing station and having your clothes fumigated (and possibly yourself covered in insecticide powder of one sort or another. ‘While soldiers were looking for any escaped lice in their clothes or on their bodies they’d stand around talking about nothing in particular. Hence, ‘having a chat’ or simply ‘chatting.’

Ever felt ‘fed up’? That comes from the trenches as well and means much the ame as it did then. If you’re bored, tired, uninterested and generally wishing you were anywhere else, doing anything else, then you’re felling ‘fed up.

‘Snapshot’ nowadays means taking a quick picture with your camera. In the trenches it meant getting a fleeting glimpse of an enemy and firing a shot without taking more than a second or so to aim your rifle. A snapshot to most of us means sending a picture of your foreign holiday home to your family. In the trenches a snapshot could see them getting a telegram instead…

Ever been on a ‘binge’ or got ‘blotto’? Probably. Most of us have at some point. Nowadays  ‘binge’ is a word used for general over-indulgence. Maybe you had too much to drink. Maybe you ate too much or smoked too many cigarettes today. On the Western Front it meant getting a rest break and heading straight for the nearest source of cheap alcohol and getting ‘blotto’ between spells in the trenches.

Have you ever been or felt ‘washed out.’ If you’d been ‘washed out during the First World War then you’d have failed officer training or flight school and be spending the rest of the war as a private. Given the huge casualties among junior officers and aircrew, though, that particular cloud isn’t without its silver lining.

If something is ‘dud or ‘a dud’ then it’s useless, broken, unfit for purpose. It hasn’t done its job. Annoying when it’s your mobile phone, cigarette lighter (they always fail when you’re really desperate, don’t they?) or something like that. On the Western Front a ‘dud’ was a shell, bullet or grenade that landed and didn’t explode. So ‘duds’ weren’t always unwelcome, especially if a large metal thing landed right next to you and simply sat there. ‘Wonky’ is another word we still use, usually for something that isn’t quite right. An unlevel portrait on a wall, for instance. Like ‘dud’, ‘wonky’ meant anything or anyone who fitted the same description.

Ever looked for a loophole? Course you have, like everybody else. But you wouldn’t have wanted to stick your had out too far because a loophole is a hole in a trench parapet commonly used (and targeted) by snipers. So by all means look, but don’t stand there for too long. In fact, with gunfire in mind, you’d be slightly safer avoiding the ‘loophole’ altogether and parking yourself in a ‘cubby hole’ instead. A ‘cubby hole’ being a small scrape in a trench wall providing marginally better protection against anything fired from directly in front of you. That didn’t mean you were perfectly safe but, as my dear old grandfather (a former Company Sergeant-Major in the Royal Marines) would have told you:

“You shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke.”

A ‘gasbag’ nowadays is a blowhard, a loud character who talks endlessly but says little, somebody who inflates themselves to far more than they really are. It was originally a word for a balloon used to observe enemy positions and both types are full of hot air and not much else.  A ‘fleabag’, on the other hand, isn’t simply a name for your pet dog or cat. To a veteran soldier on the Western Front it meant a sleeping bag (if they were lucky enough to ever see one).

Like everybody, you’ve probably encountered a ‘Moaning Minnie.’ If you’re reading this then you didn’t encounter it in the trenches because, if you had, your friends would have probably buried your remains in a jam jar. To your average Tommy in the trenches a ‘Moaning Minnie’ was shell fired from a German artillery piece called a ‘Minenwerfer’ or ‘mine thrower’ the shells from which make a loud moaning sound as they hurtle towards you. The modern variety, a professional whiner who never has a positive prediction or cheerful attitude to anything, is at least less offensive landing near you than forty pounds of high explosive and shrapnel balls. Although after a few hours you might not necessarily think so.

Like everybody, you’ve probably been a complete beginner at something or other. We all have, there’s no shame in it and we all have to start somewhere. You’ve probably been called, sooner or later, a ‘rookie.’ In the British Army then and now, brand-new recruits in training are called ‘crows’ except in the Royal Marines where they’re known as ‘noddies’ because they wear the old-style Commando hat i(resembling the hat worn by Enid Blyton’s best-known creation, Noddy) nstead of the coveted ‘green lid.’ Crows are also called rooks, hence the term ‘rookie.’ The bootnecks have their own word for them, but then bootnecks, as anyone from other units will tell you, do like to be different. By the way, for the bikers among you who call your helmet a ‘lid’, so did your ancestors in the trenches.

Ever had a ‘blind spot’? Has your car ‘conked out? These come courtesy of the Royal Flying Corps, a ‘conked out’ aircraft being one that’s unlikely to fly again. Possibly because its pilot didn’t see the enemy who occupied his ‘blind spot’ and shot him down without being noticed.

We’ll finish our little trip through First World War slang with something a little more positive, something that isn’t a reference to disease-carrying lice, big lethal exploding things, people who shoot you without you even knowing they’re there, useless equipment and semi-useless recruits. Let’s find something ‘cushy.’ To a soldier, even today a ‘cushy billet’ is a posting that’s nice and soft. Something where yo don’t get shot at and get to sleep in a bed instead of a shell crater up to your clinkers in freezing mud. In short, if it’s ‘cushy’ then it’s nice. Now, we Brits sent our troops out to ‘acquire’ quite a few places for King and Country (and the enrichment of arms manufacturers and other already-rich and ethically-challenged individuals). One of those countries was India where, in the Hindi language, nice things are often referred to as ‘Khush’ (like Hindu Kush, the alarmingly strong strain of cannabis that I’d in no way admit having enjoyed a fair bit in my younger days. Allegedly). British troops came back from India with many things of interest. Wifves, malaria, various enticing curry recipes (just the thing after a few pipes) and many words entered the English language as corruptions of words picked up on foreign service and brought home.

I could go on for hours (coming from a military family has left me with a huge repertoire, not to mention the ability to curse in seven languages) but, seeing as it’s late and I have other things to attend to, I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll probably be back to crime again (writing, not committing) tomorrow, but I do like to throw in the occasional it of randomness. Helps keep things interesting.

I’ll be back again tomorrow. Toodle Pip!

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