English Expressions Conceived in The Great War

Colloquial Expressions and Slang coined during the Great War.
Colloquial Expressions and Slang coined during the Great War.

Colloquial Expressions and Slang coined during the Great War.
Colloquial Expressions and Slang coined during the Great War. (Photo: BBC)

According to Kate Wild who is the senior assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Great War or WWI brought about varied slang in the English language like blighty and cushy. However, only some of these slang are used to this day.

Zepps in a cloudtoot sweetliberty cabbage – no bon…there are some of the many colloquial expressions coined in during the Great War. Some had lost there place in language history while others retained their places and are still used until now.

As the French and British troops were in close contact with each other throughout the Great War, the latter heavily borrowed slang expressions from the former which they took home with them after the war ended. These borrowed French slang expressions often were humorously anglicized in spelling and pronunciation.

Some were closely associated with the Great War that was why they never made it to mainstream colloquial English language. Examples of these are no bon, a combination of the English no and the French bon which means good, as well as napoo from il n’y en a plus or il n’y a plus which means “there is no more” which was used in the Great War to mean “no more” or “finished” and also as a verb meaning “kill” (example: Bill got na-poohed by a rifle yesterday.)

Others, like toot sweet, are still used up to this day. The slang was taken from the French tout de suite which means “immediately”. However, the above slang was not a Great War coinage as examples of the usage of the expression already exist in the English language as early as the 19th century. It did gain widespread usage during the war and the slang’s heavily anglicized form – tooter the sweeter meaning “the sooner the better” – is absolutely a phrase conceived during WWI.

Another word used extensively in the English language but was, perhaps, borrowed from the French is skive. It was initially used as a military term during the Great War but then passed into general knowledge after it ended. The word history of skive is nt certain. It could be a derivation of the French esquiver which means “to escape, avoid”. In this case, the word could be the most prominent addition to the English language which originally was of the French but was passed on as a result of the Great War.

After conscription was introduced in 1916, the division between civilians and soldiers became less clear, thus, allowing vocabulary to pass between the two groups easily. This is the case for the variety of words borrowed by the British military from the Indian languages in the 19th century and, possibly, the most well-known of these is blighty.

Great War Christmas card circa 1914 with the phrase "To Blighty (which meant Britain) and You".
Great War Christmas card circa 1914 with the phrase “To Blighty (which meant Britain) and You”. (Photo: BBC)

The British adopted the Urdu word vilayat and vilayati which mean “inhabited country” and “foreign” or “British, English, European” respectively. These two words are still in use in South Asian English. However, it was the regional word bilayati – interpreted as blighty in English – which gained widespread use in Britain.

It was first used during the Boer War but during the Great War, blighty developed new meanings and was used extensively.

Example, a blighty wound was a serious injury reason enough for a soldier to be sent home and the bullet inflicting the said wound could also be called blighty bullet.

In the same way, cushy which was derived from the Urdu word kusi and meant “easy, comfortable” was borrowed during the 19th century. But then, it gained widespread use not just among soldiers but civilians as well only during the Great War.

The Great War started with only ground warfare therefore the coming of aerial warfare might have caused a deep impression on the soldiers and made way to a new vocabulary. Zeppelins, the rigid airship used for transporting passengers but was initially used for reconnaissance, gained a catchier and colloquial term – Zepps. Their unique appearance as they float in the sky also gave rise to this colorful expression Zepps in a cloud which means “sausage and mash”.

One of the most productive words which came about from the Great war is strafe. During WWI, the German phrase “Gott strafe England!” (God punish England!) was commonly used for the country’s propaganda and the British adapted it in a jocular way using it for every other thing like the phrase “Gott strafe chocolates!”.

When the word entered English language, it had the meaning punish, bombard or reprimand. However, at the end of WWI, strafe’s meaning narrowed to a reference to the exact kind of punishment the armies were levying. Today, strafe is used to commonly mean an “attack with machine-gun fire from low-flying aircraft”.

As weaponry and ammunition was highly relevant to the soldiers’ lives during the Great War, there were a lot of slang words for bullets and shells coined during WWI all striking in their variance and ingenuity.

Some were in reference to the shape of the bullets or shells (toffee-apple, pudding) while others pertained to the color of the bullets’ or shells’ emitted smoke (coal-box, Black Maria). There were also bullet and shell slang that were based on the sounds they cause when they explode or approached their targets: pipsqueak, whizz-bang, fizz-bang, crump, plonker and even, perhaps, streetcar.

One word coined from the Great war pertaining to bullet is packet used in the phrase cop/stop/get a packet meaning “to be killed or wounded” or in its extended meaning, “to get into trouble”.

Another productive area which gained a lot of slang words during the Great War was words applied to the enemies. German soldiers were called Fritz or Fritzie by British soldiers which by the way was a pet form of the German name Friedrich. They were also dubbed Jerry which was a diminutive of German yet modeled after the English name.

These familiar names were used not just to denote hatred on to each side but showing affection translated into sympathy which the soldiers of either sides expressed towards each other.

The press and general public, meanwhile, used more derogatory terms like Kraut, Boche and Hun. 

Sauerkraut or fermented cabbage recipe of the Germans.
Sauerkraut or fermented cabbage recipe of the Germans.

Notedly, it was common for Germans to be referred as Krauts (German word for “cabbage”) but the word sauerkraut was regarded as too unpatriotic by some it had to be replaced with liberty cabbage which was a forerunner of these recent times’ freedom fries.

BBC reports

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE