Wednesday, July 2, 2014


(The following article first appeared in the July/Aug edition  of Lexpert)

A Remembrance of WW1 Words


Howard Richler

As this year marks the centenary of the commencement of WW1, it occurs to me that one of the reasons for the immense popularity of the television drama Downton Abbey derives from the dynamic era its earlier series displays. During the helter-skelter years of WW1 great social change was taking place and its pace was staggering. For the first time, millions of people who became soldiers were able to visit foreign lands for the first time. Also, the class system in the United Kingdom started to break down, universal suffrage came into effect and the post-war period marked the ascendancy of the United States over the United Kingdom as a global power. As Fritz Stern, German-American historian, put it, WW1 marked “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”

Also from this period sprang a number of new English words. As one would expect many of them came from the military. In this category, we have “anti-aircraft,” “cockpit,” “enlistee” “foxhole” “machine gun,” “mustard gas,” “shell shock,” “tailspin,” (aeronautical sense) “tank” (military sense) and “U-boat.” There were also many descriptive slang terms that referred to bullets and shells. For example,“pudding” and “toffee-apple” denoted shape and “Black Maria” and “coal-box” referenced the colour of the smoke emitted. Others referred to the sound of exploding shells such as “crump,” “fizz-bang,” “pipsqueak,” “plonker” and “whiz-bang.”

Another word that comes into our lexicon during the war years “strafe” must be credited to the enemy. The German phrase Gott strafe England (“God punish England”) was a common salutation in Germany at the beginning of the war. Surprisingly, the first time the word was recorded in English in 1915 it had an absurdist sense: “Chocolate does not promote sociability. 'Gott strafe chocolate,' exclaims a lance-corporal.” Before long, however, it came to mean to punish and to attack fiercely. By the end of the war, the sense of strafe had narrowed to its modern one to attack with low-lying aircraft with machine-gun fire or bombs.

As many English-speaking soldiers found themselves stationed in French-speaking locales such as Belgium and France several French terms filtered into the language. For example, “napoo” derived from il n'y en a plus or il n'y a plus, “there is no more” and was used to mean “finished” or “no more.” It was employed as a verb to mean “killed,” as in, “Poor Nigel was na-poohed last week by a grenade.” The term “toot-sweet” to mean promptly had been used occasionally in the late 19th century but its usage became more prevalent during WW1.

Three French words with military associations that become part of our vocabulary during the Great War are “sabotage,” “camouflage and “skive.” Actually, “sabotage” is first recorded just before the war and referenced the disabling damage caused by French railway workers, but by 1918 it was used to refer to disrupting the military or economic resources of the enemy. Camouflage came into English in 1917 to refer to the disguising of items used in war, and “skive” was a slang term that referred to the shirking of military duty. It derives from the French esquiver, “to dodge” and is first recorded in 1919.

The OED states that the etymology of “loo,” (toilet sense) is “obscure” but there is a high probability that it also came into use in language during the war years from the French word lieu, “place” which could be a shortened form of lieu d'aisance literally “place of easement” or latrine, a term that was picked up by British servicemen in WWI.

Alternatively, “loo” could be a bastardization of the French word for water, l'eau. The euphemism “place of easement” was used to some extent in England and the euphemistic use of “place” for toilet is common in other languages such as Swedish stalle and German oertchen. One can easily imagine how an English soldier would shorten lieu d'aisance to “loo,” or that upon reading a French lavatory sign stating something like On est prié de laisser ce lieu aussi propre qu'on le trouve, (“Please leave this place as clean as you found it”), the word lieu would resonate and then morph into “loo.” I suppose once the term “loo” caught on, puns would proliferate such as pronouncing “ablutions*” as “ab-loo-tions” and referring to the toilet as the “waterloo.” The waterloo pun would even have been appreciated by the French because le water (short for W.C. “water closet”) has long been a French expression for “lavatory” and the term le waterloo may have represented an Anglo-Gallic pun.

Slightly undermining this theory is the fact that the first OED citation is found after the end of WWI , in 1922. Increasingly, however, etymologists are finding earlier citations for some words as many small newspapers are being digitized so perhaps we will discover a pre-1922 “loo” citation from WW1 endorsing the above analysis.

*The term “ablution” was used by the British military in WWI to refer to a building on a base (sometimes called an “ablution hut”) that contained wash-places and lavatories.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

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