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.


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Women and the failure of language - First World War

The current focus in television representations of the First World War seems to be on the role of women as nurses. It is a forum which at least gives some status to older women, who in this environment are often shown as professional, distant and strong, and often phlegmatic, even tight-lipped. All of which connects strongly to the relationship between women and speech during the First World War, as shown in two of the essays in the volumes Languages and the First World War, currently in the process of publication.

The need to silence women was clearly apparent in the case of Mata Hari, a woman seen as threatening, dangerous, exposing weakness, and therefore needing to be rooted out. In Julie Wheelwright’s essay for the second volume (Representation and Memory) the concept of espionage and the implications of secret language are ultimately about revealing the hidden, and hiding that which should not be revealed; far from state censorship but equally a relationship between fear and the state, the story of the ‘spy’ shot by the French is one of mysogyny, control, and race. But it also raises the question of womens’ relationship with language in the context of shifting communication structures and the sudden changes of cultural focus during wartime. The language of race framed the fear of the threat presented by the outsider Mata Hari, as she was used and blamed, as she was both the mangeuse and the tool, in ultimately what was a sadly clumsy and all too recognisable failure of the male to manage fear and desire. The name 'Mata Hari' evokes confusion, not knowing where we stand in terms of power, as regards fiction and non-fiction, and politically, racially and sexually, and reaches out into a future post-1918. 

What happens when women’s opportunities for verbal communication are severely circumscribed is considered by Milos Damjanovic in his essay on the effects of the conflict on the Jewish community of Kosovo-Metohija in the Balkans. Women in this urban context were strongly based in the home and the cultures of the home; this is particularly seen in the linguistic field, where women acted as the guardians of the traditional language, Ladino, ultimately transferred from the Iberian peninsula. The unintended consequence of the limitations on women applied by the social structure led to Ladino being not so much actively defended from influence, as becoming a ‘home’ language in a multilingual environment. Damjanovic proposes that this gaurdianship occurred because women in this culture were prevented from having linguistic contact with other cultures.

While women, particularly mothers, clearly had a major role as guardians of the concept of ‘home’ during the war, older women had a more difficult position. Often satirised as out of touch, useless, and dressed in the fashions of the late Victorian period, their status was highlighted in their supposed restricted awareness of language change or by a limiting of their voices. A humorous postcard shows an elderly woman visiting a wounded soldier – ‘You weren’t wounded at the Front, then?’ she asks; the wounded soldier replies to the discomfited visitor ‘No, lady! A shell exploded at the base, but the base happened to be mine’. She is embarrassed, while the soldier in the next bed is laughing.

In others, an elderly woman talks to a sailor: ‘I see the papers say you were stripped for action – I wonder you didn’t catch your death of cold’, or tells a soldier on crutches ‘I know just what it must feel like, poor fellow – I had a corn plaster on all last week, and it’s been somethink awful’.

‘Getting it wrong’, in one advert, provokes what now, in a period supposedly less affected by decorum and politeness, seems to be staggering offence. An advertisement for Ariston Cigarettes was published in Punch 16 May 1917.

Cigarette Situations No 6 - If the dear old lady asks you what you think of the war – the fitting smoke for this situation is Ariston.
In all moments of exasperation, of embarrassment, of disquietude, the smoking of an Ariston – and yet another – assists in readjusting matters to harmony; its fragrant, unparalleled taste helps thought and brings an appreciation of the things that really matter.

It is a pretty damning avowal that elderly women do not matter. Hospital visiting was regularly shown as unwanted interference: in this postcard a visitor is told to ‘Oppitubitch’ as well as being shown as mistaking the term for the name of a Russian; our attention may be taken entirely by the use of ‘bitch’, so we might not notice the implication that she is parochially startled by  the foreign.

In an environment where people went to great lengths to show that they were ‘doing their bit’, for women above a certain age contributions to the war effort were undesirable and fit only for ridicule. Their attempts, and as a result they themselves, were seen as tiresome, interfering, embarrassing, and unwanted.

Even after the war older women were held up as making verbal mistakes or as being the subject of verbal mistakes. Three cartoons in Punch show older women making verbal mistakes (the issue of 8 January 1919 seemed to be out to show older women in a bad light). One cartoon has a ‘Dear Old Lady (to returning warrior)' saying: “Welcome back to Blimey”. Another cartoon shows a priest addressing an older woman: ‘I hear your husband is home from France. Is the army going to release him?’ ‘Well, he’s got a fortnight before he goes back, but by that time he hopes to be demoralised’. In another cartoon in the same issue one older woman is talking to another: ‘I wish my hsband had joined them pivots instead of the foosileers. He’d a been demobilised by now’.   In these instances older women are shown on the edge of the ‘adversity group’ who were identified by their familiarity with, and their correct use of slang. If we think of slang as being centred on the soldiers, sailors and aviators, with a secondary ring of familiarity being the officers, and then the press, and then readers of the press, older women are clearly the users of ‘failed trench slang’, not quite outsiders, but indicators again of what not to do, despite and indeed because of their best intentions. Older women’s mistakes – ‘blimey’, ‘demoralised’, ‘pivots’ – show the standard; this is what the language at the time should not be. Even if they did use a term correctly this was likely to be interpreted as an encroachment into a register that was inappropriate.Helen Z Smith in her semi-autobiographical novel Not So Quiet (1930) mocks the mother’s use of the word ‘cushy’ – ‘How well up in war slang is Mother’. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

Perhaps older women’s most positively shown power was that of tight-lipped outrage. Silence could be strong, and potentially intimidating to an enemy – this cartoon by the celebrated Charles Graves appeared in the Hun's Handbook (1915).

Thursday, 21 May 2015

A war of trouser buttons

The following appears in the ‘Trade Jottings’ columns of The Tailor and Cutter, 12 November 1914:

The British soldier at the front has hit upon an ingenious and effective expedient for keeping his German prisoner from escaping when once he has been captured. He simply, so says a contemporary, cuts the buttons off his trousers, thus the German has perforce to walk with his hands in his pockets.
Evidently, the buttons on the German soldiers’ uniforms are sewn on more securely than Tommy Atkins’s, for if what we hear is true, should any of our troops fall into the hands of the Germans, there would be no necessity to cut off their buttons; to touch them would be quite sufficient.

A bit of typical British self-deprecation, jealousy of German efficiency, and a rather alarming image of the process of taking prisoners, on both sides. From what I can find out, feldgrau trousers did not have belt-loops but were held up by braces (US suspenders) attached to waist-buttons, so theoretically this story is viable - see http://www.ir63.org/index.php?page=16 . But there may be also an element of ritual humiliation involved. I came across a later image in the Illustrated London News of German troops being told to 'hold up the ceiling' as they surrendered - 'reach higher, show despair, up on your toes'. Making a captured enemy's trousers fall down would be an even stronger declaration, physically and symbolically, of power. 

There is also an unexpected answer to a - I think - previously unasked question: why are there so many British military buttons on ebay? Apparently they were sewn on so weakly (too few stitches, cheap thread?) that you just needed to touch them to make them fall off. It seems almost to refer to the other meaning of the word 'button', something you press to set something happening, a perturbing image in this case.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Languages and the First World War update

We are at one of the more exciting stages of editing the two volumes of essays for Languages and the First World War : with some of the essays in, patterns and links appear more strongly, and as more arrive the body of work becomes more robust and intriguing.

A quote in Krista Cowman’s essay which mentioned ‘a French Tommy’ set off a few links with other possibilities for the use of the word ‘Tommy’, for last week’s blog (which had a gratifyingly wide readership), and we have just been looking at Julie Wheelwright’s paper on Mata Hari, and the influence of spy fiction, in relation to Robert Hampson’s paper on the role of class and its relation to the use of foreign languages in postwar fiction. One of Mata Hari’s threats to society was that she could not be pinned down – geographically, sexually, in terms of her social status, or even in terms of her name, which had its own geographically roving and worrying nature. Robert Hampson’s observations of the use of foreign languages in Parade’s End and Her Privates We show that Ford Madox Ford used European foreign languages as markers of higher social status, and the traces of Hindi in army slang as a marker of lower social status, while Frederick Manning’s rank and file-located narrative involves passages of French being used as part of the everyday life of the soldier. Clear demarcations break down, requiring closer investigation.

In a number of zones we see the power of children in pushing forward linguistic change. Milos Damjanovic’s paper on the complex changes in language in the Jewish community in Kosovo-Metohija examines an ethnic group whose normal linguistic situation was one of vulnerability and accommodation; in this community, having to adapt to changes of state and empowered religions, postwar dispensations put the younger generation in a position of having to and being able to adapt quickly to learn Serbian, French and English. Similarly Gavin Bowd’s essay shows how in German-occupied Belgium children were fascinated with the language of the soldiers, and created their own hybrid texts. Dominiek Dendooven’s paper on the diary of the Flemish priest Achille Van Walleghem has an anecdote about a local boy finding, from experience, the value of understanding body language when verbal communication is impossible, in this case between himself and a Chinese Labour Corps worker.

The two volumes of Languages and the First World War, Communicating in a Transnational War and Representation and Memory  comprise 30 essays by international researchers, experts and academics, and will be published in early 2016, by Palgrave-Macmillan.

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’. 

1. Quote from Capt Keith Duce, recorded c 1975 (archive material held by IWM); a raid was carried out by 'a couple of officers, some NCOs and the rest were ordinary Tommies who went over'.


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.