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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.

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Friday, 6 July 2012

The survival of First World War slang


In my school years, if a group of kids were caught doing something that necessitated a hasty exit, we would ‘scarper’. It was it seems a London dialect expression, derived from the Italian scappare (to escape) in the nineteenth century, but I suspect that its survival was strengthened by the rhyming association with ‘Scapa Flow’, which would have come into general consciousness after the end of the First World War, when the German fleet was scuttled there in 1919.

This is connected to my interest in the persistence of Franglais and other soldiers’ slang in the years following the end of the First World War; I recently came across a cartoon in Punch from April 1919, two labourers talking to each other:

Alf: Ain't you goin' to eat anyfink 'Erbert?
'Erbert: Well, my old fam ain't turned up with my bit of dayjerny.

The questions I am thinking about are:
Which terms survived and for how long?
How did they correspond to the terms actually used in France and Flanders by British soldiers – did they change their application over time?
And are there corresponding inter-language survivals in other languages – particularly French, German and Flemish?

Cartoons, reflecting the speech of people, would appear at first to be a good source, but of course they are in this case reflecting the language (supposed) of one socio-economic group (labourers) to a different group (middle class Punch- readers). Does this matter, since the joke depends on recognising and understanding rather than actively using?

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