About Me

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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, 3 August 2013

Rolf Greifelt and his work on English Soldiers' Slang 1914-18

Many thanks to Rob Schaefer for bringing this to my attention.

Rolf Greifelt’s “Der Slang des englischen Soldaten im Weltkrieg 1914-1918” (English Soldiers’ Slang in the 1914-18 World War) is a fascinating document. Written as Greifelt’s inaugural doctoral dissertation for the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Marburg in 1937, it gives a view into how British (and some other English-speaking) soldiers’ slang was being recorded and analysed nearly a generation after the conflict. Greifelt was born in 1910 and studied in Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main, Leeds and Marburg between 1929 and 1935, when he received his doctorate. Thereafter he taught and studied English, and specifically American English, at Marburg and Heidelberg, before becoming (I think) a high-school teacher at Darmstadt. He died in March 1945.

The dissertation is divided into three sections: firstly a discussion of the nature of slang; then, roughly, an investigation of English soldiers’ slang in terms of 1, its position and meaning within slang generally, 2, the methods of creating and the forms of spoken soldiers’ slang, 3, the content and forms of words, and the experience of war in speech, and 4, the distinction between English, German and French soldiers’ speech. The final section contains some observations on the influence of soldiers’ slang on postwar English and an extensive, and extremely interesting, glossary, in several sections. His bibliography includes works on language (Jespersen, Partridge, Dauzat, Saussure, Brophy & Partridge, Fraser & Gibbons, etc), novels, comments and memoirs (Graves, Sassoon, Mottram, etc), and several dictionaries.

At this stage I will confine myself to a few points in the final part of the document, which alone is a very impressive and fascinating piece of work. It begins with rhyming slang, with a clear awareness of how rhyming slang develops away from the original phrase – as in the way “butcher’s hook” becomes “let’s have a butcher’s”. It’s a comprehensive list, three and a half pages, with such familiars as “apples and stairs”, “north and south”. There’s a bit of a separation before he gets to the shortening of rhyming slang (Elliptische Kürzungen) – “china” being the only one of the five that I have heard in speech; this means a few common examples are missing – “dutch” for “Duchess of Fife/wife” (Greifelt gives “Duke of Fife”), “tod” for “tod sloan/alone”, as in “on your tod”, and “trouble” for “trouble and strife/wife” (Greifelt gives “war and strife” – and, though according to the OED “trouble and strife” was definitely around by 1908, “war and strife” may have been a more topical variation).

There are words taken from card and dice games, the nonsense word-making that created “Hoojamakloo” (Greifelt has “hooga ma kloo”), and “oojiboo”, and hats off to his transcription of “skiboo, skiboo, skibumpity-bump-skibboo” and others similar. Then there is a keenly observed section on the anglicisation of foreign words and phrases, from “apree la gare” to “nix goot” – the words and phrases given being from French, German, Hindi, Arabic, and Russian. His selection of anglicisations of place-names indicates a full understanding of the humour derived from these – “Moo Cow Farm” for Mouquet Farm, “Arm in tears” from Armentières, and the wonderful “Ocean Villas” for Auchonvillers. Then he examines shortenings, the creation of phrases from initials, including the backslang process by which RAMC is reversed to give “Can’t Manage A Rifle” (backslang being the process by which "boy" becomes “yob”). Then there are phrases derived from the trench-experience, some of them ameliorations such as “hop over”, followed by avoidance language such as “cop it”. The section ‘Tommies unter sich’ includes words for comrades, less-favoured soldiers, lice, old soldiers, common trench expressions and experiences (“to chance one’s arm”, “come the old soldier”, “come unstuck”), the structure of the army (“red caps”, “brass hats”), and how Tommy described both enemy and friend. Then there are sections on the terminology applied to women, food, weapons, cigarettes, alcohol, dying, and finally a few catchphrases, which again indicate Greifelt’s striking perception of how irony works in English humour – “wasn’t it your crowd that sank the Emden?”, and “what do you want, jam on it?”

Inevitably, etymology being a continuously developing field, some of his observations have been superseded. His proposal that “raffish” developed from the RAF is a great idea, but the OED is now able to show a usage of the word to mean “Showing an attractive lack of regard for conventional behaviour, appearance, or style; rakish; mischievous; offbeat” dating from 1906 (it derives from “raff”, which meant “rubbish” in the fourteenth century).

Though I like idea of “mungaree” coming from Zulu (Greifelt), the source Green (Green’s Dictionary of Slang, OUP, 2011) gives goes back to Nashe in 1599 London. Personally I feel there is room for a bit of discussion here, as the obvious derivation from the French manger is clearly linked to Nashe’s “mangery”, but the soft “g” seems a bit of a jump from the hard “g” of “mungaree”. And the next quote Green gives is from a Mayhew interviewee in 1861, who thought that “numgare” (sic) was ‘broken Italian’. It is not until 1886 that the form “mungary” is documented. This may be far from the story that it was a mistaken form of “I’m hungry”, as heard by Egyptians and adopted in Egypt by British soldiers, but that may have had a reinforcing effect, just as Scapa Flow may have reinforced the use of “scarper” (go/run away), originally from the Italian ‘scarpare’.

Most interesting (so far) is the observation that the word “Hun” was ‘journalese’. To test this briefly I looked at how long after the war it survived in the popular press. Sure enough the Daily Mail was still using it in headlines in 1921 – War Cat Veteran – Cigarettes That Saved Him From Hun Snipers - appeared on 13th August 1921. And they were still quoting the word in reports and letters in March 1922, by which time ‘Bosch(e)’ was long gone. I will be looking through other papers and periodicals to see how the evidence stacks up.

There is more, much more, to be examined and explored in this text, so I hope others will look at Greifelt’s work, particularly whether there was any motivation behind it. My apologies if my enthusiasm has led my very dictionary-aided German to mistranslate or misunderstand any of Greifelt’s text; and if anyone knows any more about Greifelt, and particularly the role of his text in 1937, we would love to hear from you. And if anybody feels like submitting a paper on him for a conference, the British Library and Antwerp University will supply an ideal opportunity in June 2014: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/socialscience/2013/07/wwi.html .