Release notes: The language of World War I

Release notes: The language of World War I

By 1914 military involvement overseas had long been leaving its mark on the English language. We can go back to the Elizabethan age, for example, to England’s deep engagement in the Eighty Years’ War in the Netherlands and find loanwords entering English from both Spanish, the language of the enemy, and Dutch, the language of the ally on whose territory the conflict played out. From Spanish we get tercio (an infantry formation that might be described as the tank of its day), major, and reformado (a term which became common during the English Civil War). From Dutch there is freebooter, roiter, beleaguer (originally with the literal meaning ‘besiege’), and Moff. In this context, it comes as no surprise to find French, the language of the ally on whose territory the conflict played out, and German, the language of the enemy, having a similar influence on English during World War I.

German was the source of a quite different set of loans, mainly words referring to German weapons and vehicles, such as minenwerfer (and the diminutive Minnie) and U-boat. But perhaps the most significant German loanword of the First World War – one which outlasted the war, has been fully naturalized in English, and is no longer perceived as markedly German – is strafe.

Gott strafe England! (‘May God punish England!’) was a German slogan of the First World War, widely used in propaganda. By summer 1915 the phrase was being jocularly adapted by the British (‘Gott strafe chocolate,’ one officer was reported as saying) and strafe quickly entered the English lexicon as both noun and verb, and in the derivatives strafer and strafing. To begin with, it was used to refer to various types of harsh punishment or attack: soldiers might strafe (poison, try to kill) flies, for example, or be strafed (reprimanded) by their superiors. It was soon being used specifically to refer to bombardment or attack with weapons: a war correspondent wrote in 1915 of waking up to ‘the sound of a fusillade—..the “morning strafe”, as it was called.’ This kind of claiming – and diminishing – of a threatening term was a common feature of the language of the troops.

By 1917, strafe had further narrowed to the sense it most commonly has today: as explained in one magazine, pilots ‘would go “Archie strafing”—that is, flying low over the anti-aircraft guns and attacking them with machine-gun fire.’ By the Second World War, this was the main sense of strafe; indeed, strafe is one of a number of terms relating to aerial warfare – others include air raid and strategic bombing – which were first used in WWI but became much more widely used in, and more closely associated with, WWII. This sense of strafe is now so predominant that any uses of the original general senses ‘attack’ or ‘reprimand’ (e.g. ‘Everton…strafe Chelsea keeper Carlo Cudicini from all angles in the second half’ or ‘Greg is on the receiving end of a verbal strafing from his furious girlfriend’) are likely to be regarded as figurative extensions of the machine-gunning sense.

The extent to which strafe has been naturalized in English can be seen in its pronunciation. It was originally pronounced with the vowel a sounded (approximately) as in German, so that strafe rhymed with ‘laugh’; this is evidenced by the occasional spelling straff. Now strafe is more usually pronounced to rhyme with other -afe words in English, such as safe and chafe.

These German loans are very similar in nature to the earlier Dutch and Spanish ones; they tend to be about the conflict itself, the strategies and technologies by which it was conducted. By contrast, the influence of French was more idiosyncratic, and perhaps more revealing about the culture of the soldiers who used it.  Many of the French words used by soldiers at the front were informal phrases that were garbled or mispronounced forms of common French expressions. For the British Tommy many things were doubtless no bonhe might, for example, end up napoo, especially if stationed in Wipers. On Armistice Day in 1918, Ernest Hemingway was in a Red Cross hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds and tonsillitis, feeling ‘bokoo rotten’ (that’s beaucoup). Another phrase of this kind, toot sweet, even found itself with new, macaronic comparative—the tooter the sweeter. In referring to the Germans, British soldiers could be found using the derogatory French word, Boche, and also their own corruption of the standard French allemand into Alleyman. Both words would re-emerge in World War II.

If you are familiar with the word Alleyman, there is a good chance it is because it occurs in one of the songs featured in the 1960s musical and film about World War I, Oh, What Lovely War! The song is called I Want to go Home, and the words were written to a traditional tune at some point during the war, probably by a soldier in the trenches. It provides a particularly striking example of how readily and concertedly the slang words and distinctive coinages of the war found their way into contemporary songs:

I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don’t want to go to the trenches no more,
Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea where the Alleyman can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.

And it wasn’t just songs straight from the trenches that keyed into this experience. Music hall songwriters were quick to express the same sentiments and brought the language of the war directly to theatregoers back home in Britain. The very word which the war brought to prominence to express the idea of being safe back home is at the heart of another song which has ever since been itself at the heart of popular consciousness of the war, Take me back to Dear Old Blighty. Written in 1916, the song marks the completion of the remarkable rise to prominence of Blighty. The word’s origin lies in British rule in India, as bilāyatī, a regional variant of vilāyatī, an Urdu word meaning ‘foreign’, and specifically ‘British’ or ‘European’, which remains in use in Indian English today. Kipling, for example, used the word and also used the related Belait to refer to Britain. Words naturally moved around the British Empire and one of  the principal  vehicles for this movement was the army, so it is not surprising that the first sight we get of Blighty is in a soldier’s letter home from the Boer War in 1900. In 1915, as troops from around the Empire increasingly congregated in France, this Anglo-Indian coinage was then quickly taken up to capture the idea of home as a longed-for paradise. A wound which was serious enough to necessitate a return home (but not so serious as to cause death or mutilation) became a ‘blighty’. And by 1916 everyone back home knew that Blighty was where their loved ones in Flanders dream to be, so much so that one milliner even attempted to cash in by marketing a Blighty hat! The attempt is shortlived.

This emotional link between civilians in Britain and the armed forces overseas and sense that those back home are contributing to the war effort is now commonplace and plays an especially large role in the popular image of World War II, but it is conclusively evident from the lexical record that it is during World War I that this image is first created. War effort itself is a coinage of World War I, as are rationing, home front, and propaganda film. The various Acts of Parliament that formed the Defence of the Realm Act (or DORA) set in place the legislation under which future wars would be conducted. The introduction of universal conscription meant that conscientious objectors were marked out as conchies and liable to receive the white feather. Not only the songs in the music halls, but also the development of military technology play an important role in motivating these changes, as civilian London is subject to air raids or Zeppelining which prefigure the Blitz.

Perhaps this erosion of the gap between combatant and non-combatant, this sense of shared experience of being at war and shared suffering, also contributed to the final and perhaps longest-lasting and most influential expression of the war—the words which describe the act of remembrance. Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, and (in Australia and New Zealand) Anzac Day were all introduced to commemorate the fallen and have subsequently retained that purpose for the fallen of later conflicts. Sir Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph in Whitehall was copied in towns and cities throughout the Commonwealth to create a network of national and local memorials. A short period of communal silence was introduced and maintained annually as an ongoing mark of respect. The Unknown Soldier was buried with full military honours in Westminster Abbey. These names, and the fact that they form part of our ordinary language nearly a century on, are a testament to the power of remembrance that World War I unleashed and also a testament to the power of words to capture, communicate, and record the shared sentiments and shared decisions which history bequeaths to future generations.

Andrew Ball, Associate Editor & Kate Wild, Senior Editor

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.