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Look at the words below. What period of time do these words suggest?

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We tend to think only of objects as artifacts – Anglo Saxon helmets, swords, coins, parchments, paintings, photographs, but so it is with words. More ephemeral, gaining a solidity only when written, individual words, like their solid three dimensional counterparts offer a window into the world to reveal the past, a people and place.

“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries ….Words live in the mind…variously and strangely.” ~Virginia Woolf.

All words have stories of their past, of their journey to the English of the present day. None of the words above or below are linked etymologically or morphologically. However, they are linked by time. Would you adjust your time estimation if these words below are included with those above?

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The challenge of two 45 minute periods to share with teachers the hidden delights of words! The words above were how my friend and colleague Sharon Peters and I began our recent workshop with teachers. We know that morphology, etymology, phonology is not a subject ‘done’ in a single sitting: it’s a lifetime of thinking, reading, learning, discussing, reading,learning, gathering dictionaries, trusted sources, reading, learning, muttering words and hypothesising!!! We knew we wanted participants to:

  • Investigate the morphology and etymology of words.
  • Explore ways to link word inquiry to reading and writing across the curriculum.

We know that word inquiry in the classroom should not be viewed as separate, an island where words lap lifeless on the shores of learning. Words are integral to understanding so any inquiry should be embedded in the context of one’s subject area. Of course, always, the ultimate aim through any inquiry is a relishing, a tasting and exuberance in words, their relatives, their past stories and travels.

This introductory section, the hors d’oeuvre ‘served as a relish to whet the appetite’ for the other workshop delights, took only 5-10 minutes, but it will be the entirety of this post. And so we leap back in time to the years of 1914- 18, to the Great War, The First World War, World War One, ‘the war to end all wars’ a phrase inspired by the article “The War that Will End War” by H.G.Wells , published in The Daily News on August 14, 1914. (Read more here).

The First World War

‘I said that we called it now The War, but that this could not last. The Napoleonic War was The Great War. To call it The German War was too much flattery for the Boche. I suggested The World War as a shade better title, and finally we mutually agreed to call it The First World War in order to prevent the millennium folk from forgetting that the history of the world was the history of war. (1918 C. à C. Repington Diary 10 Sept. in First World War (1920) II. xxxvii. 391) Record of meeting between Charles à Court Repington, British war correspondent with U.S. military historian Major Johnstone.

Michael Proffitt, Chief Editor of the O.E.D., notes the use of first for this war was used in 1918, and therefore in anticipation of future wars. It was not as we might expect a naming in retrospect:

‘The phrase acknowledged not only the unprecedented scale of the conflict (the First World War), but also predicted its enduring historical significance. It suggested that – far from being the war to end all wars – this might be the first of a new kind of global conflict. The name was conceived as a warning from history.’ Read more here: Chief Editor’s Notes, June, 2014.

Below a small taste of the words of this period:

Silence has been around as you would expect for a long time, since 1200 from Latin silere in fact as a noun, but as an adjective silent does not appear until 300 years later, in 1500 and then a little later as a verb in 1560s.  It kept much of its earlier denotations but another sense was added in 1919.  ‘A short period of communal silence and stillness, observed as a public mark of respect for a person or group of people who died; specifically the two minutes’ silence held in many Commonwealth countries at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day or (since 1946) Remembrance Sunday. Cf. moment of silence n. at moment n. 1f.’(O.E.D.)

Dud : The predecessor of dud was duds which has been attested since the 13th century as dudde meaning mantle, cloak. Beyond this point, it’s origin is uncertain. As a word indicating uselessness, it has been ‘out and about’ since 1895 to indicate someone in ragged clothing, developing then to take on a the sense of fake, counterfeit and from this sense, a small step to its use in the First World War to refer to shells that failed to detonate.

Camouflage has French origins first occurring in English as a noun in 1885, according to the O.E.D. However, The First World War, saw its uses as a verb. It’s not surprising that many words of this period came from Britain’s major ally and the place where the battles raged. This word is derived from camoufleur meaning disguise and perhaps from Italian cauffare disguise, trick. Read more here from The Online Etymology Dictionary about puffs of smoke and blowing these in the face to trick.

Aussie is a reduction from Australian and attested from 1910 according to the OED. Note the <-ie> diminutive suffix perhaps in this word indicating affection rather than smallness! This type of formation is hypocoristic– a process where a word is truncated, often with a suffix <-ie> or <-o>. It’s often seen in pet names: Barbie, Robbo, Annie. However, it’s a notable feature in Australian English with the hypocoristic elevated beyond pet names .

Take a dekko , slang for take a look, at this. According to Jane Simpson, place names in particular are subject to hypocorism: Tasmania- Tassie, Freemantle as you may have noticed in the previous post- Freo, Woolongabba, the Gabba, Woolloomooloo ~ The Loo, Brisbane ~ Brissie . Yet it’s not just place names as Roland Sussex indicates : ‘To this we can add common nouns like clippie “tram conductor”,muddie “mud crab”, schoolies (the school leavers’ annual week of celebration), reffo “refugee”, cab-sav “cabernet sauvignon” (wine), rhodo “rhodo-dendron”, fisho “fish merchant” or K “kilometre”.’ (Australian hypocoristics: putting the <-ie>  into Aussie: Vol. 12.2) Sussex has collected has over 4,000 headwords for his database on this subject.

And let’s take a brief sidestep to consider the word dekko, not, as I had presumed hypocoristic, nor is it an Australian term. Dekko is another example of a word coming to the fore during the First World War and even more surprisingly arriving from Hindustani देखना dekhnā / دیکھنا dekhnā, “to see, to look”! According to the O.E.D., Hindi dekho, is the imperative of dekhnā to look. This is a word absorbed into the talk of British troops in India ‘and gradually disseminated through the British army. On 20 March 1915 the Birmingham Daily Mail wrote that “The wars of the past have invariably coloured the language of returned soldiers, and this worldwide war will be no exception to the rule.”

Cushy and Blighty too are from Hindustani roots . Cushy is attested from 1895 derived from khush pleasant. The OED suggests the word ultimately may be Persian in origin:Urdu ḵušī and its etymon (ii) Persian ḵušī pleasure, convenience < ḵuš, w good, pleasant (of uncertain origin) + , suffix forming abstract nouns. In military slang it refers to undemanding tasks.

The OED notes that in 1915 it referred to a wound: ‘serious enough to necessitate one’s withdrawal from active duty, but not life-threatening or likely to have permanent consequences, such as disability…Apparently only with reference to the First World War (1914–18).’

1915 Ld. Moran Diary Sept. in Anatomy of Courage (1945) When you are in the trenches a cushy wound..seems the most desirable thing in the world. (O.E.D.)
Julian Walker in the Guardian wrote that blighty evolved from the Urdu word bilayati meaning “foreign” which was applied to British troops in India. This shifted to mean mean British, and then shifted to stand for Britain. One of the great hopes for a British soldier was “a blighty one”, a wound that was disabling, but not disastrous, which would send the wounded man home for good (Trench Talk,Guardian). As such the word blighty is not two morphemes *<blight+y>. The free base element <blight>   ‘entered literature’, states the O.E.D., ‘apparently from the speech of farmers or gardeners, in the 17th cent.’ For a term used often with plants, it is somewhat ironic that its roots are uncertain.  Perhaps it is from ‘Old Norse *bleht-r, the antecedent of Icelandic blettr stain, spot, blot;’

Blighty, the O.E.D. states was ‘originally used by soldiers on service overseas, esp. during the First World War (1914–18) and Second World War (1939–45), and subsequently more generally in informal, and often somewhat humorous, contexts’.

Daily Mail 1 Nov. 4/4 So-and-so stopped some shrapnel and is back at the base in hospital,..he wasn’t lucky enough to get a blighty.

Conchie is another example of a hypocoristic formation. This is used in a derogatory sense in reference to a conscientious objector and is attested from 1917. It’s interesting to consider where the original term is clipped. The prefix <con-> is retained  and the <sci> base element partially suggested with the <ch> digraph reflecting the pronunciation /ʃ/. However, the slang word <conchie> is a base element. The <-ent> and <-ous> suffixes have been removed as well as the other word < objector> that forms part of the compound in conscientious objector.

‘Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill.” Letter to his mother, May 1917.(Wilfred Owen). He may well have been writing about what it tok to be a conscientious objector during the First World war. Listen to BBC World War One at Home: Conscientious Objectors

1917: Conscientious Objectors protest at Dartmoor.

White feather:  The white feather in the tail of a game bird was at one time indicative of inferior breeding and from here develops the symbolism of a white feather as cowardice. This has been used ‘in figurative phrases, as to mount (also show) the white feather : to surrender in a cowardly way. During World War One, women in Folkstone followed the suggestion of Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald, town councillor, in presenting unenlisted men with white feathers to shame them for not fighting. This form of shaming and naming became so intense the government was forced to issue silver badges to men who’d already served or were working in jobs vital for the home war effort. Read The Men Who Would Not Fight (Guardian).

Both elements in this term <white> and <feather> are free bases. White is from Old English hwit “bright, radiant; clear, fair. Note the metathesis- in this case the transposition of the letters <hw>. Read more of its Proto Indo European origins and its Sanskrit, Slavonic and Lithuanian cognates at the Online Etymology Dictionary.  Feather is derived from Old English feðer which has Proto Indo European origins:*pet-, also *pete- “to rush; to fly”. But who would have thought  pen, petition, impetus and repeat could be feathery? This is no mere flight of fancy! Read more here .

Duckboard is comprised of two free base elements <duck> from Old English roots duce, and the presumed Old English *ducan “to duck, dive”  and bord <board> to form the compound which is attested from 1917. This compound led to other phrases: ‘Duckboard glide, a common term for after-dark movements along the trenches, when secrecy and quietness was essential … Duckboard harrier, a despatch ‘runner’ or messenger, whose duty took him along the duckboards in the trenches.’

The Imperial war Museuem states: Duckboards ‘(or ‘trench gratings’) were first used at Ploegsteert Wood, Ypres in December 1914. They were used throughout the First World War… in theory to help protect men’s feet from accumulated water; walking along them (especially at night and in the wet) was something of an art.’

Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track near Hooge, in the Ypres Sector via The Independent: a History of World War One in 100 Moments.

Scrounge and its noun, one who does the scrounging, scrounger <scounge+er> is dialectal. The O.E.D. states it is from scringe: to pry about or perhaps as the Online Etymology suggests it is an alternative from scrouge scrooge. Scrooge means to “push, jostle”  and is attested from 1755. It is also Cockney slang for “a crowd” probably suggestive of screw, squeeze. Could this be linked with Dickens’s infamous miser  Scrooge?

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!'(Dickens, A Christmas Carol) Read Harper’s entry from Online Etymology Dictionary here)

The word scrounge became popularised when used as military slang by servicemen in the war of 1914–18 and during this period ‘referred to a soldier with plenty of resource in getting what he wants.'(O.E.D.)

Wipers: is  an example of renaming, an Anglicised pronunciation of Ypres, in the province of West Flanders in Belgium. This was a strategically important town for the British and Commonwealth forces with heavy loss of life occurring here.‘Ypres was the site of three significant battles (1914, 1915, and 1917). The second battle marked the first use of poisonous gas as a weapon on the Western Front; the third was fought in appalling conditions and resulted in particularly heavy casualties, becoming a byword for the suffering of soldiers during the war.’ (O.E.D.)

‘On the Road to Ypres’ by Christopher Nevinson

The tooter the sweeter: this is a playful alteration of the phrase the sooner the better and a play on French ‘toute de suite’.

THE NEW LANGUAGE. Tommy (to inquisitive French children). “NAH, THEN, ALLEY TOOT SWEET, AN’ THE TOOTER THE SWEETER!” from Punch Vol.153, Dec 5 1917

Shellshock: is a compound and first attested in 1915 as a noun, then two years later as a verb. Both elements of the compound are free bases. Shell is from Old English roots sciell, scill,  and Anglian scell “seashell, eggshell,” and is also related to Old English scealu “shell, husk,” ultimately from Proto-Germanic *skaljo “piece cut off; shell; scale (Online Etymology Dictionary) Shock on the other hand appears to have entered English via French choc, noun of action from choquer. This free base element has homographs as in the phrases shock of hair and shock of corn. As homographs they have different roots.

The term “shell shock,” is first used by Capt. Charles Myers in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915. He wrote about “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in three soldiers who had each been exposed to exploding shells. Initially it was felt the damage of shellshock was ‘commotional’. When it was discovered that many exhibiting the symptoms had not always been near the explosions, the cause was thought to be one of “neurasthenia,” or weakness of the nerves. Today the O.E.D. states this would be classified as a form of post traumatic stress disorder. Read more from The Smithsonian magazine: The Shock of War.

What did we learn in this brief overview?

  • Words are of a time and place, not locked in a constant meaning but narrowing or broadening to reflect new understanding or in response to new situations. Words are a record of social history.
  • Words can be playfully abbreviated to indicate humour in the bleakest of situations.’ “One has to hang on to one’s humour like grim death, wrote a young officer in 1915, ” otherwise you are bound to crack’. Often it’s a defense against what Edmund Blunden described ‘socket-eyed despair’ ‘ (Voices of Silence: The Alternative Book of First World War Poetry, Noakes)
  • Words, slang, can also bind people together to signal membership of a group, of belonging as well as ostracising and excluding, such as conchie.

Oh It’s a Lovely War- written in 1917 by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott and part of music hall star, male impersonator Ella Shield’s repertoire. The music hall jollity reflects the bleak humour and through satire and irony criticizes the conditions and shows the disillusionment with the war.



The last words go to Siegfried Sassoon:

‘…On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.” Siegfried L. Sassoon, July 1917. Read Sassoon’s letter here in full at Shaun Usher’s wonderful Letters of Note: Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.

For more on the Words of World War One follow these links:

OED Release Notes:The Language of World war One

100 Words that Define World War One