We Use Everyday Slang That Started in WWI – You Are So Over The Top

 
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Are you off to Blighty? Do you want to skive off some unpleasant task? Do you think that blimps are just no bon?

The English language is constantly evolving with new words being added all the time. This is not a new phenomenon with slang and expressions from across time impacting on modern language.

The vocabulary of the WWI trenches has left a lasting impression on our language although some terms could not stand the test of time.

Blighty

A WWI term that has come to mean a lot to the British is Blighty. This has become a common nickname for Britain but has its origin in the Urdu words vilayat and vilayati. These words mean “inhabited country” and “foreign” respectively. In one regional variation, the Urdu term was bilayati.

British Vickers machine gun crew during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, World War I.
British Vickers machine gun crew during the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, World War I.

This is the one that the British military started using in the 19th century and which ultimately turned into Blighty.

Blighty was used not only as a term for Britain but also as a description of a wound. A blighty wound was one that was serious but not disabling and resulted in the wounded man being sent home (i.e. back to Blighty).

UK Blighty Shellcase. Photo: Redbarchetta0 / CC BY 3.0
UK Blighty Shellcase. Photo: Redbarchetta0 / CC BY 3.0

Being in a Flap

If you are worried about something, you might be in a flap. This is a term that dates back to 1916 and was generally used by naval personnel. The expression is believed to come from the flapping of restless birds.

This expression also led to the word unflappable. Unflappable first appeared much later in the 1950s and means “unflustered.”

Crew of HMS E18
Crew of HMS E18

No Bon

One of the expressions from the WWI trenches that did not stand the test of time was no bon. This expression is a mixture of English and French commonly used by British troops. The “no” part is the English term, and the “bon” part is the French.

The literal translation of this expression is “no good” as bon means “good” in French. It is not hard to see why this expression did not make it into mainstream English.

Men of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, in 1916. Photo by Ernest Brooks.
Men of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, in 1916. Photo by Ernest Brooks.

Napoo

Another expression that did not make it into colloquial English is napoo or narpoo. The term varied depending on who was using it and is another derivative of French. The term comes from the French phrase “il n’y a plus” which means “there is no more.”

The English-speaking soldiers who fought in the trenches with the French anglicized this term to one with an easier pronunciation: napoo. It was commonly used to describe something that was finished, destroyed, or dead.

British stretcher bearers recovering a wounded soldier from a captured German trench during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, late September 1916, part of the Battle of the Somme.
British stretcher bearers recovering a wounded soldier from a captured German trench during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, late September 1916, part of the Battle of the Somme.

Skive

Skive is another word which is believed to have come from an anglicized French word. The exact etymology of this word is a bit murky, but it was first used as military slang during the war. Experts believe that it may come from the French word “esquiver” which means “to escape or avoid.”

To skive was used by the military to describe avoiding a task or job. If it did come from the French word, it would be one of the most prominent French-derived slang words to enter the English language.

British infantry [2nd Leicesters] at drill during a rest from the trenches
British infantry [2nd Leicesters] at drill during a rest from the trenches

Blimp

The airship known to us as a blimp first received this name during WWI. The only problem is that no-one is completely sure how this name came about. There are a few theories with the most popular being the category these ships were placed in.

According to the theory, a blimp was known as a limp airship as it was non-rigid and could be inflated and collapsed. This placed them in the military inventories as Category B: Limp. If this theory is correct, the name was a combination of the category and the identification as limp.

Another theory, which some believe is more plausible, is that the name was onomatopoeic. In this theory, the name mimicked the sound made by the airship when fully inflated.

Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench, first day on the Somme, 1916
Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench, first day on the Somme, 1916

Read another story from us: “Taking Flak” & Other English Expressions That Have Their Origins In WW2

Over The Top

This expression has seen a resurgence in recent years but did die out post-war. Today, it is used to describe something that is excessive or unnecessary. This is far from the original meaning of the term.

During WWI, this expression was used to refer to an attack from the trenches. The attack required soldiers to climb over the sandbags on the top of the trench or to go over the top of the trench.

At the time, the term was also used to describe the starting of a dangerous venture with a small chance of survival.

 
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