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Our words remember them: the language of the First World War

By Charlotte Buxton

In July 1917, after three years of bloody war, anti-German feeling in Britain was reaching a feverish peak. Xenophobic mutterings about the suitability of having a German on the throne had been heard since 1914. The fact that the Royal family shared part of its name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, with the Gotha bombers responsible for the devastating recent raids on London turned these whispers into open cries.

In response, King George V – resenting any aspersions on his patriotism – changed the name of the British Royal family to the impeccably English-sounding Windsor. This act signalled the power of names in a society heavy with newly coined, derogatory labels for the enemy: from Jerry to Fritz, through the Krauts, the Boche, and the Hun, you needed to know who you were fighting, and why, it was felt.

But jingoism was not the only source of linguistic creativity in the period. The circumstances of the First World War were so horrific, so extraordinary, and involving so many millions of people that a new language was almost essential. Many words which emerged at the time have clear associations with the conflict, such as camouflage, blimp, aerobatics, demob, and shell shock. Others have a more complex history, emerging from soldiers’ slang; itself a product of the increased cosmopolitanism ushered in by the war.

Take me back to dear old Blighty

Before the war, many of the young Tommies (a term deriving from ‘Thomas Atkins’, which was used on specimen army documents from 1815 as the name of a typical private soldier) who were shipped abroad to fight had probably never ventured far beyond the villages in which they were born. Suddenly immersed in exotic, unfamiliar cultures, both their longing for home and their assimilation of their new surroundings are summed up in one word: Blighty.

Meaning Britain or England, but especially ‘home’, Blighty originated in the Indian army, as an anglicization of the Hindustani bilāyatī, wilāyatī meaning ‘foreign, European’. First recorded in print in 1915, Blighty was an ideal place of comfort, love, and security, sharply contrasting with the hideous discomfort, harsh discipline, and constant danger of the front, and remains a popular term amongst Brits for their homeland to this day. Less familiar is the word’s extended use, which popped up on the television programme Downton Abbey recently, when the conniving footman Thomas Barrow deliberately injures his hand in order to escape the trenches. In the programme, this war wound is referred to as a ‘Blighty’ – a popular term at the time for any injury serious enough to get its victim sent back home, hopefully for good.

Less extreme than a Blighty was a cushy wound – one which was not serious enough to get you sent home permanently, but which would usually buy some time away from the trenches. Deriving from the Hindu for ‘pleasure’, ḵushī, the word’s more familiar sense of ‘undemanding, easy, or secure’ developed at the same time. This has stuck in the language to this day, with ‘cushy job’ a particularly popular phrase in the Oxford English Corpus. In North America cushy is now also used to refer to a particularly comfy sofa or other piece of furniture – far removed, one might think, from its starting point in the mud and gore of battle.

From the trenches to the street

British soldiers adopted the language of their enemies just as keenly as they adapted that of their foreign allies, as is shown by the origins of the verb strafe. The German phrase Gott strafe England (‘God punish England’) was a common greeting in Germany from 1914 on – ‘the recognised toast throughout Hunland’, as one contemporary colourfully put it. Refusing to be daunted by the threat, the term was hijacked by British soldiers, who began to use ‘strafe’ as a comic word to refer to any harsh punishment or attack, whether targeting the enemy (‘strafing the Fritzes’) or doled out by the British brass hats (high-ranking officers).

The word reached the streets of Britain remarkably quickly, with the Daily Mail commenting in 1916 that ‘strafe is now almost universally used’, adding that ‘the present writer heard a working-class woman shout to one of her offspring ‘Wait till I git ’old of yer: I’ll strafe yer, I will!’ This should come as no surprise: life during the war was so closely tied to the army that many elements of soldiers’ slang (such as scrounge, kip, tart, chow, and go west) quickly passed into general use, and continue to have a lasting impact on the way we speak today.

The First World War may be famed for poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden (most of whom were officers), but the rank and file also made their own vigorous contribution to the English language. Remembrance, after all, isn’t just in the two minute silence. It’s in the talk that follows; the memories of those who gave their lives woven into the very words we use every day.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

From For The Fallen by Laurence Binyon

Charlotte Buxton is a Project Editor for Oxford Dictionaries, and is wearing her poppy with pride. This post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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