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Word Nerd: Down the foxhole of First World War vocabulary

As this year marks the centenary of the commencement of First World War, it occurs to me that one of the reasons for the immense popularity of the television series Downton Abbey derives from the dynamic era it displayed in earlier seasons.

During the helter-skelter years of WWI great social change was taking place and its pace was staggering. It was the first time millions of people who became soldiers were able to visit foreign lands. Many never returned. The class system in the United Kingdom started to break down, universal suffrage came into effect and the post-war period marked the ascendancy of the United States over the United Kingdom as a global power. As Fritz Stern, German-American historian, put it, WWI marked “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”

What also sprang from this period were a number of new English words. As one would expect, many of them came from military vocabulary. In this category, we have cockpit, foxhole, shell shock, and U-boat. There were also many descriptive slang terms that referred to bullets and shells. For example, pudding and toffee-apple denoted shape, while Black Maria and coal-box referenced the colour of the smoke emitted. Others referred to the sound of exploding shells such as crump, fizz-bang, pipsqueak, plonker and whiz-bang.

Another word that came into our lexicon during the war years, strafe, must be credited to the enemy. The German phrase Gott strafe England (God punish England) was a common salutation in Germany at the beginning of the war. Surprisingly, the first time the word was recorded in English in 1915 it had an absurdist sense: Chocolate does not promote sociability. “Gott strafe chocolate,” exclaims a lance-corporal. Before long, however, it came to mean to punish and to attack fiercely. By the end of the war, the sense of strafe had narrowed to its modern one – to attack with low-lying aircraft with machine-gun fire or bombs.

As many English-speaking soldiers found themselves stationed in French-speaking locales such as Belgium and France, several French terms filtered into the language. For example, napoo derived from il n’y en a plus or il n’y a plus (there is no more) and was used to mean finished or no more. It was employed as a verb to mean killed, as in, “Poor Nigel was na-poohed last week by a grenade.”

The term toot-sweet from tout de suite (right away) to mean promptly was used in the late 19th century but its usage became more prevalent during WWI.

The OED states that the etymology of loo (toilet sense) is “obscure” but there is a high probability that it also came into use in language during the war years from the French word lieu (place) which could be a shortened form of lieu d’aisance, literally place of easement or latrine, a term picked up by British servicemen in WWI.

Alternatively, loo could be a bastardization of the French word for water, l’eau. The euphemism, place of easement, was used to some extent in England and the euphemistic use of place for toilet is common in other languages such as Swedish stalle and German oertchen. One can easily imagine how an English soldier would shorten lieu d’aisance to loo, or that upon reading a French lavatory sign stating something like On est prié de laisser ce lieu aussi propre qu’on le trouve (Please leave this place as clean as you found it), the word lieu would resonate and then morph into “loo.” I suppose once the term “loo” caught on, puns would proliferate such as pronouncing ablutions* as ab-loo-tions and referring to the toilet as the waterloo. The waterloo pun would even have been appreciated by the French because le water short for W.C. (water closet) has long been a French expression for lavatory and the term le waterloo may have represented an Anglo-Gallic pun.

Slightly undermining this theory is the fact that the first OED citation is found after the end of WWI in 1922.

Increasingly etymologists are finding earlier citations for some words as many small newspapers are being digitized so perhaps we will discover a pre-1922 loo citation from WWI endorsing the above analysis.

*The term ablution was used by the British military in WWI to refer to a building on a base, sometimes called an ablution hut, that contained wash-places and lavatories.

Howard Richler’s book Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

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