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Get your gas mask on – toot sweet! World War I, and its impact on English

©  GettyThere’s a popular song from World War I about a soldier going off to the front. It starts with the lines:

Brother Bertie went away
To do his bit the other day

(You can hear an original recording here.)

Doing your bit” – taking your fair share of a job that has to be done – is just one of many expressions coined during the brutal four-year conflict that was originally known as “the Great War”. The war began 100 years ago, on July 28th, 1914, so this is a good moment to look at its impact on the English language.

Major wars always bring developments in military technology, and many of the neologisms of the time reflect this. It was the first time that air power was used systematically in war, and the words air raid and anti-aircraft first appeared in 1914. Another new invention was the tank (sense 2 in the dictionary), while forms of camouflage (first use: 1917) became more sophisticated. But the dominant feature of the war was the system of trenches on the Western Front, stretching from the northern coast of France to the Swiss border, and separating the two sides by just a few hundred metres.

Life in the trenches was hard and frequently terrifying. With the use of poison gas, troops were issued with gas masks (1915), and when the trenches filled up with mud, you had to walk on duckboards (1917) to get around. The endless bombardment and the trauma of battle left some soldiers suffering what would now be diagnosed as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms such as amnesia, panic, uncontrollable shaking, and catatonia. This new and mystifying condition (affecting men with no physical injuries) was referred to as shell shock (1915), and efforts to understand and treat it led to advances in psychiatric medicine.

The “Brother Bertie” song referred to at the start has a chorus which ends with:

Bonsoir, old thing! cheerio, chin-chin!
Napoo! Toodle-oo! Good-bye-ee!

The use of bon soir (French for “good night”) shows how British troops picked up some of the local lingo, and there are many examples from this time of French words and expressions being assimilated into English. The last line has napoo (1915), an anglicized version of the French il n’y a plus (“there is no more” or “it’s all over”), and other jokey attempts at French include san fairy ann (ça ne fait rien: it doesn’t matter) and toot sweet (tout de suite: immediately). Some of these usages didn’t survive for very long, though we still talk about plonk (cheap wine), which derives from the French vin blanc (white wine).

There are other expressions which first appeared during the war but subsequently acquired new meanings. Basket case (1919), for example, was originally a gruesome term for a soldier who had lost all four limbs and had to be carried around in a basket, while going over the top (1916) referred to the moment when soldiers climbed out of their trenches to advance on the enemy. Meanwhile, the phrase “it’ll all be over by Christmas” (a hopelessly optimistic, yet very common view in July 1914) has taken on an ironic life of its own.

Another group joining the melting pot of the Western Front were troops who had served in India (then part of the British empire), who brought examples of Indian English with them. (We have talked before about the influence of Indian languages on English vocabulary.) What most soldiers longed for was a cushy posting – to be sent to a part of the front that was (relatively) comfortable and safe – and cushy came into English from the Hindi khush, meaning pleasant. Most of all, they just wanted to go home, and this sentiment was expressed in another popular song of the time called “Take me back to dear old Blighty”. The word Blighty was already well-established in India, being derived from the Hindi bilayati (literally, “foreign”), and used by Brits in India to mean home or England. During the war, it gained a second meaning: a blighty was an injury serious enough to have the victim shipped back to Britain.

To end on a lighter note, when American soldiers came home from the war, they had acquired a taste for potatoes fried in the French manner. The word French fries (1918) may just be the most enduring linguistic legacy of World War I.

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Michael Rundell

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