How the First World War is still present in the English Language…

The English language has evolved throughout the centuries to become what we know it to be today. In fact, it is still evolving and changing before us today, with the introduction to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) of words such as ‘selfie’ ‘chillax’ and ‘cryptocurrency’. Significant events have also had an impact on the development of language, with the OED recently announcing the introduction of COVID-19 related words and phrases to the dictionary. This blog post is going to highlight some of the phrases that we may use on a day to day basis that have their origins in the First World War. Some of these words and phrases will be very familiar but some may turn out to be quite surprising!

The first phrase, and probably the most well-known of them all is ‘Over the Top’. This phrase is fairly self-explanatory in its origins, coming from the action of troops literally going over the top of the front (parapet) of the trench whilst carrying out a task – whether it be advancing in an attack, carrying out a raid in order to snatch a prisoner, or going to carry out repair work. This phrase has developed over the last century and it could be said that there are two definitions of the phrase. The first being similar to its first usage as a term during the war, being to embark on a course of action or making of a remark that is either excessive or unnecessary. The second usage of this phrase today relates to describing people as being over the top – or ‘OTT’ as it is sometimes shortened to – in their behaviour; being excessive in some manner.

The next phrase on the list is a particular favourite of mine, which is ‘Bombing along’. The origin of this phrase refers to the fact that grenades were initially called bombs, and certain soldiers were selected to have specialist training for this weapon. Whilst every soldier was given two Mills bombs to use during an attack, if a bomber approached you and asked for your bombs, you would have to hand them over, as the bombers were best placed to cause maximum damage with this weapon. The phrase ‘bombing along’ comes from a tactic that was utilised by bombers, who would run along the parapet of the enemy trenches dropping in bombs at intervals, to cause maximum damage, if this were possible to do. This origin is clearly shown in the modern day usage of this phrase, where someone ‘bombing along’ is a person who is moving along at a very rapid pace.

Not all the phrases and words that became popular during the First World War had their origins in the conflict. In fact, many had prewar origins. One example of this is the word ‘Bumf’. In modern usage, the word ‘bumf’ refers to the endless amount of mail that comes through our doors without warning, and usually ending up in the bin without much more than a glance because it has no information of importance or interest to us. This modern use is not too far of its original meaning. The word itself is actually a shortened version of the army term ‘bum-fodder’ – paper that has only one possible practical use that I don’t really need to explain any further! It is originally from prewar schoolboy slang then adopted by the soldiers to refer to excessive paperwork. It generally referred to the endless streams of army orders that were issued from headquarters.

The next phrase that appears on this post is one that anyone who speaks English would be familiar with. ‘Chatting’ has come to mean being a group and conversing with others but it actually has its roots in activities surrounding the removal of lice from uniforms. The lice would lay their eggs in the seams of the troop’s uniforms; near to the warm, moist parts of the body such as the armpits and the groin area! The eggs would hatch, and it would then become very unpleasant for the soldier wearing that uniform. One technique that was used in the trenches to get rid of the eggs before they hatched, was to run a candle or small flame along the seams of the uniforms – with the intense heat causing the eggs to pop rather than hatch. Soldiers would sit around doing this together in order to share the flame, and this activity eventually became known as ‘chatting’. This word is believed to come a few different sources such as the Hindi word for parasite which is spelt either ‘chitt’ or ‘chatt’ and also has some roots in Medieval English with the word ‘chateren’ meaning idle gossip. This is a prime example of not just the influence of the First World War on the English language, but also how words maintain their historic meanings.

An immediately recognisable phrase used today that has its origins in the First World War is ‘Plonk’. The phrase comes from a seemingly universal trait of British troops in the First World War, who found themselves unable to wrap their heads and tongues around French and Flemish words. Other popular examples are Wipers for the city of Ypres and white sheet for the village of Wijtschate. ‘Plonk’ quite simply is a corruption of the French for white wine ‘Vin Blanc’ which troops were able to obtain quite cheaply in estaminets behind the front lines (see life behind the lines post for further information). ‘Plonk’ is still used in the English language in reference to a bottle of wine.

A term that is used today in many different settings that became widely used during the First World War is the word ‘Sniper’. The words origin appears to come from the British Army’s time in India where troops hunted the Snipe, a small and very fast bird, that was exceedingly difficult to hit successfully. If a soldier was successful, he was nicknamed a sniper. Prior to the First World War, armies had employed specialist marksmen who were referred to as sharpshooters. However, throughout the First World War, the Germans were able to field thousands of highly trained riflemen, who were in possession rifles with telescopic sights. British troops started to refer to these sharpshooters as snipers. From 1914 the word was widely adopted by the British press, and it has since become a universal term. Sniping also has a secondary meaning in the English language today, referring to the act of making sharp or snide remarks about another person.

The First World War saw many advances in medicine, technology and weaponry. Possibly one of the best known is the creation of the tank as a weapon. ‘Tanks’ as a name came about as a way to shield the true purpose of these new armoured fighting vehicles when those who were working on the machines were told they were mobile water tanks. The name of tank was selected as the official name in late 1915 and has continued to be used to name armoured fighting vehicles in various armies around the world.

One term from the First World that has had a definite change in meaning is ‘Shrapnel’. Invented and named after Lt Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784, shrapnel’s military definition refers to the small balls contained inside shells that were designed to spread when the shell exploded. Today, shrapnel is often used to describe the small change – usually 1p and 2p coins – that is carried around without much use and stays in purses and wallets until put away in a jar with other shrapnel!

‘In a flap’ is another phrase that is well used today that became more widely known in the First World War. If you are in a flap, you are worried or flustered about something. The phrase appears to date from 1916, originally being a naval expression derived from the restless flapping of birds, but it quickly spread into everyday English during the First World War. It has further developed from there, with the term unflappable coming into use from 1950s.  

A term that has developed into common usage in the English language actually has its roots in German propaganda. Throughout the First World War it was common in Germany to see “Gott Strafe England!” or “God punish England”. This phrase was printed everywhere from newspaper advertisements to postage stamps. In response, Allied troops quickly adopted the word ‘strafe’into the English language after the outbreak of the War and used it to refer to a heavy bombardment or attack, machine gun fire, or a severe reprimand. Today, ‘strafe’ is used to describe an attack from low flying aircraft, utilising bombs or machine gun fire to cause damage.

To finish off the post, a word that has developed from before the First World War and still has a strong usage today. As a word, ‘Blighty’ has had many influences on its development. It is believed that ‘Blighty’ has developed from various regional languages and dialects of countries where the British Army had a strong influence, mainly the Middle East and India. Wherever the origins lie, it is agreed that the word has evolved from words that mean foreign place or country. During the First World War, a Blighty one was a term that was often used to describe a wound that was bad enough to require long term treatment away from the trenches either in a base hospital, or back in the UK. Today, we use Blighty as a nickname for the UK, a term affectionally used to mean the same thing that it did to the soldiers in the trenches: home.

Whilst compiling this list, I came across many further examples of how the First World War is still present in the English language today. Whilst I did know about these already, it astounded me just how many terms we use without thinking about, came from a time in history that has had such an effect on the world.

‘Til next time!

Beth

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