About Me

My Photo
I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Trying to define 'Tommy'

While copy-proofing the essays for the upcoming volumes of Languages and the First World War I have become very aware of the designation ‘Tommy’. Accordingly I checked on the OED definition – ‘(A generic name for) a British private soldier; British private soldiers collectively’ – which states clearly, and twice, that this is specifically referring to British private soldiers. Officers could not then be called ‘tommies’, nor NCOs I suppose, and surely not privates in the armies of other nations?

Krista Cowman’s essay for LFWW: Communicating in a Transnational War includes the following: 

‘a letter written soon after his arrival in France in the spring of 1915 by Captain Lionel William Crouch described his amusement at ‘watching a group of our chaps surrounding a French Tommy who was endeavouring to teach them French.’ [Crouch, L. W. 1917. Duty and service: letters from the front by Captain Lionel William Crouch.]

The same day I was reading this I did a quick search for Tommy in the newspaper archive and found several thought-provoking stories.

In The Liverpool Daily Post 26 July 1916 there was a report on the Manx Legislative Council and the House of Keys:

‘Yesterday, in connection with the provision for relieving soldiers estates from duty, the Attorney-General strongly protested against soldiers being popularly called “Tommies.” The term, he said, was ridiculous and offensive, and would not be allowed in any other country.’

There is a remote possibility that the term was associated in older people’s minds at that time with older meanings of ‘tommy’, such as those given in J C Hotten’s Dictionary of Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1865), in which the meanings given are ‘bread, generally a penny roll’, and ‘a truck, barter, the exchange of labour for goods, not money.’ The association of the conscripted soldiers with a trade or a consumer perishable might have stuck in some people’s throats.

Others, veterans included, disliked the term. In Trench Talk we quoted ‘An Ensign of 1848’ in The Times 23 October 1914 who wrote to the editor thus: 

‘May I … suggest that the time has now come … to put a period to the use of the nickname “Tommies”? … To hear these British soldiers referred to in deprecatory patronage as “Tommies” by those who stay at home … is unseemly and exasperating.’

Other non-British Tommies appear in The Rochdale Observer 20 May 1916, which has ‘a fat French Tommy’, while the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough 17 December 1915 has ‘the Italian “Tommy”’.

An article in The War Budget 24 February 1916 raises the class basis of the designation: ‘Tommy Atkins enters the “upper” class’. This article, about disabled soldiers retraining at Cordwainers College, is naturally a pun, Cordwainers College then as now giving training in shoe design and manufacture, but to be a pun it has to also carry the idea of the upper class, and a Tommy entering it – from outside.

A few weeks later the same publication, while enjoying a bit of banter, unwittingly opened up the question of the unity of the Union by redesignating some Scottish soldiers with a new version of the name with the headline 

‘Tammas McAtkins’s water ration’

When the Americans entered the war a correspondent for the Daily Chronicle, quoted in the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury 3 July 1917, wrote about the need for ‘a nickname for the American troops in the same way as the English are called “Tommies” and the French “Poilus”’. No doubt this was much to do with the age-old muddle between English and British. But the notably observant Arthur Guy Empey in Over the Top (1917) gives a glossary ('Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches') which includes 'Tommy' as 'the name England gives to an English soldier, even if his name is Willie Jones'. 'Willie Jones' has a distinctly Welsh feel about it; is Empey highlighting the muddle? And did Empey's dictionary apply to himself, an American volunteer? Of course Scottish soldiers were traditionally ‘Jock’, and Welsh ones sometimes ‘Taff’; Partridge gives the term ‘The Micks’ for the Irish Guards. Partridge also specifies that ‘Tommy’ was specifically for non-colonial troops (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

 So Tommy was British, and English, (and French and Italian and possibly Serbian, Russian, Portuguese, etc), unless known to be not English, in which case what might the Welsh and Irish versions of Tammas McAtkins have been? To stretch the mind further, six months after the Armistice, The Daily Mirror described the political instability in Germany with some antipathy towards ‘Prussian officers’ lording it over ‘German Tommies’.


Friday, 17 April 2015

More First World War fag-ends

Some more smoking material.

In Aubrey Smith’s Four Years on the Western Front (1922), an incident occurs where a convent building which is being garrisoned by the Lancashire regiment is being shelled. There is a calculation, born of experience, of when and where the next shells with land, and how much damage they will do – ‘they just turn out, stand behind the wall and put on a pipe’. (p23)

How much evidence is there for the idea that officers smoked pipes, while other ranks smoked cigarettes? Not a lot. Occasional occurrences like this, from Verse and Prose in Peace and War, by Lt William Noel Hodgson (1917): Cheery little cigarette-ends gleam in the darkness, and the subaltern is smoking what was once a fine specimen of Fribourg and Treyer’s art in pipes.’ (pp61-2). Fribourg and Treyer were very upmarket tobacconists, with shops in Haymarket and Cornhill, London.

Bert Thomas reprised the ‘Arf a mo’ image in 1939 for the Second World War, in a poster for National Service recruiting; a fire-fighter is seen with a tin hat and a breathing apparatus tank on his back. He is lighting a pipe. The caption is ‘Arf a mo’ ‘National Service needs you. Learn now! – Be ready!’

It seems that the original ‘Arf a mo’ postcards were as sought after in 1915 as they are now – witness the text on the back of this one, sent from Derby to Newcastle on 24 January 1915:

Dear W,
Was at Birmingham y’day & saw this in a window. N has wanted me to get you one for a long time, but couldn’t get it in N/c. Thanks for your card which made me feel quite Scottish – I didn’t say skittish! My, you would like to see some of the Birmingham shops! Glorified market (?)! Guess the name of someone I saw here today & ask N for the answer. No prize offered. Having a fine time. Britannia (?) Theatre or Bed  every night after work!
Love to all, Tom

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Doolally and the 1901 census

'Humours of the Census', from the Portsmouth Evening News, 4 April 1901.

Dealing with the experiences of the census-taker, the Yorkshire Post says it was of little use to threaten a frowsy housewife, more intent on the pot of beer on the table than on clearing up the litter around her, that in default of giving an account of her family she was subject to a fine of £5. “Ger away wi’ yo’,” she says, “we hanna five bob, let alone five pun,” and, a dangerous light coming into her eyes as she seized hold of a saucepan, “And if yo’ don’t clear out I’ll bang you wi’ this.” In one street, it is stated, “two Irishwomen, mother and daughter, welcomed us with musical honours – a refrain which began and ended with ‘Doolally, doolally’ – the paper had to be filled up for them. The daughter had a voice that could be heard behind the closed door of the cottage at the end of the next terrace. There was nothing she wished to conceal from the neighbours. It was ‘Limerick, me darlint,’ and ‘32 me swate one,’ and ‘onaisy me, not a child have I got,’ all like the sounding of a steam-packet’s fog-horn.”

All behaviour sounding fairly reasonable in the circumstances; but this may be the first printed documentation of ‘doolally’, though the exact meaning is not clear.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Don't get the breeze up

Knees up Mother Brown!
Knees up Mother Brown!
Under the table you must go
If I catch you bending,
I'll saw your legs right off,
Knees up! Knees Up! Don't get the breeze up, Knees up Mother Brown!

I do remember singing this in a school playground in the early 1960s, which is further back from now, than the first documentation of the song is from then; our version had the line ‘If I catch you dancing’, which of course made nonsense of the lyrics. But consistent sense plays second place to the sounds of the words in successful popular songs – witness the number of people who happily sing to themselves for decades mistaken lyrics to songs first heard in childhood.

First recorded as having been sung by troops in 1918, ‘Knees up Mother Brown’s not-so-covertly sexual lyrics seemed to have slipped by into widely accepted popular culture – in fact my internet search for it this morning gives the fourth listing as a children’s song. There are several proposals suggesting that it relates to the early nineteenth century, or the period of the widowhood of Queen Victoria - if, as is suggested in several websites, ‘Mother Brown’ was Queen Victoria, the song looks like an anti-monarchy satire encouraging her rape by her companion John Brown. But there is some consistency to the documentation of it being widely sung at the period of the Armistice, November 1918. It was published in 1938 as ‘by’ Harris Weston and Bert Lee.

One question is whether the line ‘Don’t get the breeze up’, is a development of ‘getting the wind up’, First World War slang for ‘be afraid’. There were plenty of developments of this phrase: ‘it’s a very windy proposition to sit in a “bus” that is performing all the insane tricks a pilot can think of’ (1918), and ‘wind-up’ jackets were ordinary uniforms officers wore to avoid being targeted by snipers. Jonathan Green gives ‘getting the breeze up’ as another development (Language! 500 years of the Vulgar Tongue, 2014). Given that ‘breeze up’ is a perfect rhyme for ‘knees up’, the question is which came first? Did the expression ‘getting a breeze up’ come from the possibly pre-war song, and was it incidental that it meant the same as ‘getting the wind up’? Or was  there an earlier version with a different phrase, which was substituted at the end of the war by ‘don’t get the breeze up’ – ‘don’t go and freeze up’, ‘don’t be a tease [up]’? It doesn’t seem likely. Or was ‘don’t get the breeze up’ a meaningless phrase in the pre-war song, a quite feasible proposition in itself, which suddenly coincided with a slang expression during the war, and made a match in popular culture heaven – the words were there just waiting for the meaning to come along?

‘Getting the wind up’ seems to have existed early on among the infantry, and may possibly have been reinforced by the idea of fear as a wind blowing through troops. It later matched perfectly the uplift sensation caused by anti-aircraft fire, also known as ‘Archie’ (see earlier posts on the origins of that term). Coincidence did help the wider acceptance of phrases during the period; did the fact that the relief at the end of the war meant no more ‘getting the breeze up’ help gain wider acceptance for the song?

‘Breeze’ appears in Farmer & Henley’s Slang and its Analogues (1890) as – A row; quarrel; disturbance; coolness. [From BREEZE, a cool wind.]  Famer and Henley cite Grose The Vulgar Tongue (1785) which gives 
‘To kick up a BREEZE, to breed a disturbance.’ 
And Moore Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress (1819) But, though we must hope for such good times as these, Yet, as something may happen to kick up a BREEZE’. 
And The Saturday Review 28 january 1865 ‘Don’t be angry; we’ve had our BREEZE. Shake hands!’

‘A breeze’ here is ‘a fuss, a disturbance’. 

This meaning is not included in Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1865) or Redding Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), so it presumably was disappearing in the second half of the nineteenth century, but may by then have been embedded in the song.

Many thanks to Jonathon Green for the following citations:

breeze-up (n.)
[play on get one’s/the wind up under wind n.2 ]
(Aus.) fear.
1917 F. Dunham diary 8 Feb. Long Carry (1970) 30: Fritz made a bombing attack to the right of our front [...] and there was general ‘breeze up’ for some time.
1919 W.H. Downing Digger Dialects 13: breeze-up — Fear.
1924 G.H. Lawson Dict. of Aus. Words And Terms [Internet] BREEZE-UP—To be afraid.

[that is the complete entry for the noun form, including Lawson's use as intransitive verb]

get the breeze up (v.)
(also have the..., put the...) to worry, to disturb.
1918 E.G. Dodd diary 27 Jan. [Internet] This time he chased an engine on the railway line. I’ll bet he put the breeze up the driver and fire man.

[this is an Australian diary; the geography gets mixed as time passes]

Jonathon Green also sends this:

1865 Leaves from Diary of Celebrated Burglar 31/1: I don’t want to say anything more about it just now, for fear he gets ‘wind.’

This was originally published in New York, by G. W. Matsell & Co., proprietors of the National Police Gazette, in 1865; it was the work of a celebrated, though anonymous, British criminal. More on this in the highly recommended Language! 500 years of the Vulgar Tongue.

Currently my hypothesis is as follows: during the nineteenth-century the criminal slang term ‘get (the) wind’, spread through the English-speaking world (the last convict transportation to Australia was in 1853), and was used in underworld slang. Its use by British and/or Canadian troops in the trenches was reinforced by contact between UK and Anzac troops in Egypt, Gallipoli and then Europe, and by the phenomenon of ‘up-blast’ from anti-aircraft fire (and from the earlier experience of the updraft at Brooklands). Creative wordplay in the trenches developed this into ‘getting a breeze-up’, meaning ‘be afraid’. ‘Don’t get a breeze up’ in pre-war versions of the song meant – ‘don’t kick up a fuss’, i.e. ‘don’t complain’. First World War slang, dominant from 1918, pushed out the older and obsolete meaning of the phrase, so that the injunction, instead of meaning ‘don’t complain’, meant ‘don’t be afraid’.

Does this tone down the song’s essential message of the threat of extreme physical violence and rape? I think not. But curious that First World War slang may have helped change a republican/anarchist satire into a drinking and dancing song associated with the spirit of the Blitz.

Friday, 27 March 2015

'Arf a mo, Kaiser

'Smokes for our soldiers at the front'

The Weekly Dispatch scheme to send tobacco to the soldiers at the front began in September 1914, with a promise that every packet sent would carry the name and address of the sender, thereby ensuring a link with home for the soldier and a link with the place of combat for the contributor. But what was it a packet of?

The first notice in the paper, on 13 September, announced the setting up of the scheme ‘to send them tobacco and cigarettes’, a scheme ‘whereby every reader may gladden the heart of a hero in khaki by filling his pipe and giving him the cigarette he so dearly loves’. Perhaps it is an effect of the song ‘Pack up your troubles’ that we have the over-riding idea that soldiers smoked cigarettes (‘while you’ve a lucifer to light your fag’); it is hard to find advertisements in newspapers for pipe tobacco amid the vast number of adverts for cigarettes – Army Club, Waverley, Players, and several brands which seemed to vanish with little trace (Mufti and Life Ray, for example, though Woodbine seemed not to need to advertise).

But there is ample evidence for pipe-smoking in the background. Charles Douie in The Weary Road (1929) describes (p170) meeting three men in a shell-hole in no-man’s-land; observing that they are in a position of extreme danger, he gets the reply from the Dorset lance-corporal that ‘he would be all right so long as he did not lose his pipe’.

The most famous image to come from the Weekly Dispatch campaign is the drawing by Bert Thomas of a soldier lighting his pipe, with the caption ‘‘Arf a mo, Kaiser’. That, however, is not the first caption, which appears above the figure -  ‘Wait till my pipe’s lit’. This was seen on the first occasion that the cartoon was used, 9 November. There had by then been several cartoons used in the campaign. The first, on 4 October, showed ‘Tommies enjoying Weekly Dispatch tobacco at the front’: pipe-smokers outnumber cigarette-smokers by 5:2, possibly 6:1. In the next issue there is a handwritten letter expressing gratitude for ‘a packet of good English Mixture’, saying that ‘not one of the English Tommies here in France can enjoy the French Tobacco nor the cigarettes’, and only used them in the absence of ‘good English baccy’. The next issue (16 October) shows ‘a few of our sailors enjoying “Weekly Dispatch” cigarettes and tobacco’ – the drawing has four pipe-smokers and two cigarette-smokers. There is a big change the following week with John Hassall’s cartoon of a soldier and a sailor lighting each other’s cigarettes (the humour is that it is impossible to tell who is lighting whose). The next cartoon is Bert Thomas’s famous image (for more on Bert Thomas, who donated the image as a contribution to the campaign while he was serving in the Artists’ Rifles, see http://www.worldwar1postcards.com/arf-a-mo.php ). All the three subsequent cartoons feature cigarettes only – it seems the tide was turning against pipes. From 29 November you could buy a postcard reproduction of Bert Thomas’s cartoon, and by 3 January 1915 you could buy ‘Striking Souvenir Plates’ at a shilling, signed artist’s copies at ten shillings and sixpence, or postcards for a penny. For every shilling reproduction sold, the Weekly Dispatch promised to send a sixpenny parcel of ‘Tobacco and Cigarettes … to a brave soldier at the front – in the purchaser’s name’. But, headlined as ‘’Arf a mo, Kaiser’, there was no longer any mention of ‘Wait till my pipe’s lit’.

By 7 February 1915, pipe tobacco’s popularity seemed to be receding in favour of cigarettes. ‘Soldiers’ Tributes to “Weekly Dispatch” Cigarettes’ was the sub-headline. The text beneath contains many letters of thanks, which mention both cigarettes and tobacco, but overwhelmingly cigarettes. A week later the paper announced figures of the amount that had been dispatched – 2 million ‘packets of cigarettes and tobacco’, and/or 45 million cigarettes. The headline was ‘45,000,000 cigarettes’; you could still buy a copy of Bert Thomas’s picture. By 11 July though even the slogan ‘’Arf a mo, Kaiser’ had disappeared from the fund’s announcements.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Plonk, the one that got away


This is a reorganising and reposting of the blogs on 'plonk' that I first posted on the Languages and the First World War blog.

In all the excitement about words which became widespread in English during the First World War it is worth sparing a few moments for the words which infuriatingly did not get used. Given all the time that English-speaking soldiers spent in French estaminets drinking ‘vin blanc’ how on earth did they not get round to calling it ‘plonk’?

There is a wide range of military usages for ‘plonk’ during the war:

The noise of a bullet - ‘the plink-plonk of a bullet’, Nottingham Evening Post, 19 May 1915.

The arrival of a shell - ‘a shell plonks on top of the [dugout]’; and the noise of a shell - ‘whirra whirra came the travel of of the shell, then came the final plonk as it burst’, Liverpool Echo, 3 August 1915.

Grenades - ‘… by this time the German flares are falling all around, and along the trenches the ‘bang-bang,’ ‘zip-zip,’ ‘plonk-plonk’ and the more familiar sounds of rifle fire and grenade begin to tickle our ears’, Evening Despatch, 4 September 1915.

The impact of a bullet - ‘Just as I got to the second trench I felt a “plonk” in my leg. “Oh!” I said, “I’ve got it.” I looked down and saw a hole in my leg.’ West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 17 April 1917.

Jonathon Green points out that there are similar words for being drunk and being wounded, but that there’s no evidence to suggest that these were connected via the word ‘plonk’.

Unfortunately while the word ‘plonk’ was used variously to describe the sound or effects of different kinds of projectile, there has been found, so far, no published documentation of any English-speaking soldier, or civilian, using ‘plonk’ to mean wine, blanc or otherwise, until 1929. Jonathon Green cites the following:

1929 Register News-Pictorial (Adelaide) 31 Oct. 26/2: Coffin varnish and plonk were two of the names which Mr Collins […] referred to some of the cheaper wines.

There is the tantalisingly close 1919 citation in W.H. Downing’s Digger Dialects: ‘Vin blank, white wine.’ And ‘Von blink, a humorous corruption of vin blanc.’

Green’s 1919-33 citations are Australian, but we should bear in mind the history of wine-making in Australia: over 30 years before the First World War Australian wines had been competing successfully in international exhibitions in France. And according to http://www.rareaustralianwine.com/wineRegions/wineHistory.asp ‘After the First World War, vines were planted in various soldier settlements which temporarily increased production. Overproduction though, and consequently lower prices for some grape varieties, meant that some vineyards couldn’t compete economically and many vineyards collapsed.’ This wine, as it collapsed economically, might have called forth some wartime descriptions – see below for the documented wartime usage of ‘plonk’. Now begins the search for pre-war citations of ‘vin blanc’ in an Australian wine-making context.

So while we could say it ‘probably’ came from WW1 France, we cannot be certain.

The paper given at the LFWW conference (British Library, June 2014) by Véronique Duché and Diane de St Léger from the University of Melbourne described the progression of ‘bad French’ in Australian linguistic culture, from the evidence of trench journals. The Aussie in particular (which carried articles showing an interest in language) moved at the end of the war to being a veterans’ publication and then a national magazine, still retaining ‘bad French’ as an anti-authoritarian gesture.

By 1943 ‘plonk’ meant Australian wine: S J Baker’s A Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang, 1943 (3rd edn.) gives ‘plonk’ as ‘Cheap Australian wine, often laced with methylated spirits’; and ‘plink’ is ‘described as “a cheap form of plonk” ’ [which must have been pretty lethal]. Downing’s Digger Dialects, 1919 nearly gets there, but not quite. We may suggest, but no more, that it comes from ‘vin blanc’ as the most likely source, but not necessarily as a result of war-zone linguistic contact.

Are there any words which were used for both alcohol and projectiles and/or their effects? Green cites:

 ‘We’ll ’ave a drink to ’elp us,’ said Bill, and a cork went plonk!   1916 P. MacGill The Great Push 57:

Maybe there was an avoidance of linking something you liked, or at least could pretend to like, with something you wanted to avoid; perhaps wine ‘plonk’ did not come into ‘reality’ as spoken out loud until after the metal ‘plonk’ stopped killing.

One possibility (no more than that) is that the long history of wine-making in Australia would have made Australians so familiar with the term ‘vin blanc’ that it was unnecessary to create a slang version; as an already common term, pronounced phonetically for English-speakers, it would not have come within the remit of the need to create the deliberately ‘bad French’ that was a mark of Aussie ‘bloke’ attitudes (and which created so much wonderfully cynical slang during the period).

A search through Australian postwar newspapers reveals the term ‘vin blanc’ in use certainly up until 1939, in linguistic environments where slang terms were being used, and where ‘plonk’ might be expected.

For example:

(In a veteran’s narrative)

“Just one , Madame, only one vin blank!”
“Non, non, Monsieur, finish vin blanc, finish! Gendarme come tout de suite: finish!”
“Orright, then Madame, I can be a nurk too! I know where there’s a nice, clean waterhole full up to its grassy edge with fat, juicy frogs, and you won’t get one off ‘em!”

Sunday Times (Perth) 5 January 1919

Returned Soldiers’ League
Smoke Social
Diggers should join up and help their comrades

… Where two or three diggers are gathered together there is sure to be some fun and many reminiscences, and withal an atmosphere of camaraderie which impregnates the gathering with such a spirit of goodwill that the mere fact of being present is a privilege. … The President (Dr Steele) was in the chair, and there was a glint in that gentleman’s eye from the jump that prophesied that so far as he was concerned proceedings were not going to lag. However, not much urging was required, for, in the words of the invitation cards, the comrades rallied to their “Beera Quicekateer, boo-koo, vin blanc and mungey” and made the night the event of the year, and so as to avoid misunderstanding it might be said that when the fun was over they were each and every one as clearheaded as when the evening started.

Burra Record 22 Sept 1922

What did Omar Mean – Wine?
Corp William F Sherman
[this includes the term ‘parleying’]

A lot of licker is hard to take, but has a rebound like a French 75. But Vin Ordinaire, as they call it for short, is an insult to the taste without being a spur to the ambition. Vin Blanc, the pale variety, isn’t even good to look at, and it resembles vinegar in taste, appearance and smell. Vin Rouge has a beautiful vin rouge colour that is very deceptive. It tastes, however, even worse than its sister Blanche.

The Gungadai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser 22 Aug 1922

Christmas at the War
“A Nineteen-Fourteener” has a few recollections of Christmas while abroad with the A.I.F.

In those days we were never short of “felloose” – the Gyppo term for cash. …
Vin blanc and French Biere spun out about 9 pm with the majority still sitting up on their blankets.

Sunday Times (Perth) 20 Dec 1925

The Great War – according to Hoyle

Do that puttee up.
Yes, sergeant.
Don’t answer me back.
No, Sergeant.
P-a-r-r-ade, S’hun!
Stand-at –Eas-s-se.
P-a-r-r-ade, S’hun!
Fall in.
Your leave is cancelled.
 ? ? ? ! ! ! x x x ! ! ! Sergeant.
What did you say?
Nothing, Sergeant.
Well, don’t say it again.
Fall in.
Your rifle is dirty.
D’you call these socks.
You’ve got blanco on your face.
Don’t answer me back.
So this is France.
Vin blanc.
Vin blanc.
Vin blanc.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Stop singing.
Put that _ light out.
Put that LIGHT OUT.
So this is the front line.
Look at that pretty cornflower.
Things seem pretty quiet here.
Things seem —-
Wallop. Whe-e-e-e-e!
Yes, nurse.
Is this Blighty?
Yes, doctor, I fell worse than ever.
When this ta-ra-ra war is over.
Good-night, sister.
Oh, yes, I saw a bit of fighting.

Western Mail (Perth) 1 May 1930

Report of The Diggers’ Ball
One of Narromine’s Biggest Social Functions

List of dances includes No 4 fox trot the Chat’s Parade (by De Louzer); No 5 waltz Tosti’s San Fairy Ann; No 6 one step, In a Vin Blanc Boozer.

Narromine News and Trangie Advocate 16 June 1933

From The Last Word’(short story)

Over the usual round of drinks Boon volunteered that he had been in France during the war, and had run across Smith in one of the English foot regiments.
“We had a binge together,” he said. “You know that vin blanc stuff. We swapped stories and hats; he took my slouch hat and I had his cap. Got Hell roared out of me next morning on parade. Never saw him again …”

The World’s News (Sydney) 29 April 1936

An article in The World’s News (Sydney) 4 November 1936 is fairly regular in its lexis but contains a few slang phrases such as ‘well bushed’ (tired) and ‘stiff luck’. In a story about a dog being used for smuggling there is the sentence ‘How many bottles of vin blanc (Australianised into “plonk”) he carried into the lines would be impossible to calculate, but they were many.’ But this is long after the first documented usage of 'plonk' as wine.

To sum up, at this stage:

  • In Australian and New Zealand war reportage during and after the First World War the word ‘plonk’ was used to describe a variety of projectiles, their sounds or their effects.
  • ‘Vin blanc’ and a number of variations including ‘Von Blink’, ‘vin blank’, ‘vim blong’, ‘plinketty-ponk’, ‘point blank’ and ‘Jim Blonk’, were used, but apparently not ‘plonk’, to describe white wine, during the war and in reminiscences afterwards.
  • Australians were familiar with the term ‘vin blanc’ and it was used widely. Not so much in New Zealand newspapers: from currently available OCR (high quality) in the NZ newspapers archive I can find only 3 citations of ‘vin blanc’ 1914-18.
  • In several situations in postwar Australian newspapers, where one might expect to see a slang term, the straightforward ‘vin blanc’ is used. Some of these appear after the documentation of ‘plonk’ for cheap wine (1927).

Anglophone soldiers appeared to not enjoy French white wine, at least in their memory:

    “Sauntering over to a French canteen, we were initiated into the mysteries of “Jim Blonk” [vin blanc], and “Vin Rouge”, neither of which appealed to our English palates.”     Strange, J D. The Price of Victory, 1930, quoted in Hiddemann, H. Untersuchungen zum Slang des Englischen Heeres im Weltkrieg, 1938

Does the term ‘Von Blink’ indicate any semantic link between vin blanc and the enemy? Probably not, given the existence of ‘Jim Blonk’ and others, which seem to indicate that this was more a case of playing around with the sounds,  either to make a nonsensical term (‘plinketty-plonk’), or to create something more recognisable (‘point blank’) – it could be compared to the way place-names were changed (‘Ypres’ being morphed into ‘Wipers’).

These then are examples of the use of ‘plonk’ and the non-use of 'plonk':

1. Firstly, the earliest example of ‘plonk’ meaning cheap wine I have been able to find in the Australian press:

    Welter of Taxation

    A characteristic contribution to the debate was made by Mr Collins. He objected to the Government “plonking on” the taxation.

    “Give us a definition of ‘plonk’?” asked Mr McMillan.

    “Yes, I can do that.” Replied the obliging Mr Collins.

    “It is a cheap wine produced in Mr Crosby’s district.” Loud laughter greeted the sally.

    News (Adelaide) 8 December 1927

2. Alternative forms for ‘vin blanc’, the first three spotted and supplied by @hugovk via twitter, and my thanks to him:


    Cable – “A wine ship with free samples will shortly leave France for America and Australia”.

    Sing hey for the good ship Claretcup,

    Sing ho for the cargo carried;

    Her anchor’s weighed and her peter’s up,

    Too long she’s tacked and tarried.

    Her bulkheads burst with bonza booze,

    Van blong, van rouge and sherry,…

    Sunday Times  (Perth) 26 March 1922


    Fish Oh!

    Van blong and van rouge at a French café came along as a top-off and two hours later Ted S- and his mate got aboard the rattler for Perth, Ted having a large parcel of fish under his arm.


    Sunday Times  (Perth) 20 July 1924


    Reminiscences of France

    The Australians, partly through irony and partly for practical reasons, deformed many French terms, and substituted either an English word or syllable at the end of a phrase. Thus instead of the French “Comment allez-vous!” (How are you?) the Australian said – “Comment allez plonk?”  The same thing was done by the French themselves, and the French word for German, “allemand”, was altered to “alleboche”, the final syllable of which became in time an independent and universally used word. Proper names were mutilated in the same fashion, and instead of “Marguerite” one heard “Margarine”, and “Simone” became “Cinnamon”. In Flanders people drank beer, and on the Somme white wine. This was first called “vim blong”, then “vim blank”, and afterwards “Point blank”. It would be interesting, the lecturer said, to revisit this district later and see how many of these words had remained in the dialect.

    Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 16 July 1923


But ‘vin blanc’ was also used without difficulty:

    Behind the Lines

    You can get French beer at 1d a glass – very second-rate stuff – while “special” at 2d a glass and “Boche” at 1 franc  per bottle are better, but are all very light. Spirits are, of course, practically “taboo”, but vin rouge and vin blanc (red and white wine respectively) are popular drinks, but the quality is doubtful. Champagne may be had everywhere, and at varying prices.

    Press 28 July 1917 (NZ)


3. Uses of the word ‘plonk’, to do with hitting/projectiles, from Australian and NZ newspapers. Clearly the sound is being imitated in many cases:

    Hill time after time thwarted Edward’s good intentions by plonking a left to the face.

    Truth (Melbourne) 25 Dec 1915


    [A woman gives her husband] a resounding smack in the face . Plonk!

    Pukekohe & Waiuku Times 24 December 1915


     “Whizzy Plonk” – Metal from the Skies

    All we have heard was “whizzy plonk”  [talking about falling anti-aircraft shells]

    Auckland Star 12 May 1917


    I was coming up the sap one day conveying mails, when a Taube aeroplane flew high, over our heads. Of course our guns must fire on her, so we, being directly underneath, got the full benefit of the stray bits. I was walking along with a chap and both of us were watching her as she passed when all of a sudden – bang! And almost immediately a faint pur-r-r of falling pieces. We landed together under the shelter of a bank, and ‘plonk’ came the pieces all around us.

    Poverty Bay Herald 28 March 1916


[The sounds of projectiles]

    Zip-zip, hissing and cracking of bullets. …. plonk – only a Hun bullet which has buried itself

    Marlborough Express 21 Oct 1916


    … the dull ‘plonk’ of a gun in the enemy’s lines …

    Poverty Bay Herald 19 Oct 1916


    [Naval guns] “plonk” two or three shells in a trench [and later] “plonk” some shrapnel above them

    Evening Post 8 July 1915


    At about 11 a.m. plonk came two or three shells bursting on top of me, and burying me four or five [feet] deep. …

    Did I see the tanks? Of course I saw them, and they are absolutely out on their own, and very strange to watch, crawling along at four miles an hour.

    Press 12 Jan 1917 (NZ)


    The regular “plonk, plonk”’ of the feet of a woman swimming …

    Auckland Star 15 April 1916


And the Taranaki Daily News  for 1 July 1915 reported on a concert with a rendering of the song ‘Plink, Plonk’ – this was written in 1911 by Murphy & Lipton for George Formby, its full listing being George Formby’s Famous Guitar Song ‘Plink-Plonk!’ (The Skin of a Spanish Onion).

Outside the usage of ‘vin blanc’, the word ‘blanc’ occasionally caused problems:

    It looks as if the restaurant-keeper’s education was sadly neglected or else that they entertain a profound contempt for French. One well-known Bourke-Street restaurateur writes it “Balmonge,” while another, not far away, puts it down as “Blank manjy.”

    Truth (Melbourne) 26 June 1915

Actually I reckon the etymology still holds good for the second case.

@Fieldmeasurer kindly contributes this excerpt from Agony’s Anguish self-published in 1931 by George Barker:

    An officer emerges from a pillbox, and with a whisper tells us to make for the distant ruins of a farm. Panting with nervous fear we each make for it, and our steps are shaky as we proceed. I try to run but my limbs are like lead. Plonk za! A near shave that time. Some of us manage it, others get hit and join their unfortunate companions in death.

‘Plonk za’ seems to belong in the linguistic experiments of Futurism. Noticeable also is the phrase ‘a near shave’, not the first time this has turned up in a First World War context.

Eric Partridge's take on 'plonk' is interesting (and he was there): 'Mud, esp. that of no-man's-land: military: 1916-18. (Hence, over the plonk, 'over the top'.) B. & P. [Brophy & Partridge] Ex the noise made when one draws one's feet from the clinging mire. ... 2. Pinky, cheap port, sold by the quart : Australian [Partridge was from New Zealand] : from ca. 1926. Prob. ex plink-plonk'.

In the 1930s the term spread - Partridge notes 'plonk' as cheap brandy sold in Italy (naval slang); and a 'plonk bar', an Australian wine bar, from circa 1935; a 'plonk-dot', 'A confirmed wine-bibber' from 1953; and 'plonko', a drunkard addicted to plonk, Australian since c. 1930.