About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. 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; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Monday, 27 October 2014

More Other Ranks

Further to the post on 'Other Ranks', the May 1916 issue of The Twentieth Gazette - which the British Library catalogue describes as 'A journal devoted to the interests of the 20th Battalion C.E.F. (Northern and Central Ontario Regt.)' - contains on page 3 the report of a cricket match:

20th Batt. v 31st Batt.

The 20th Batt.'s innings is listed as follows: 
Lieut. McLean    ..      ..      3
Lieut. Hainington        ..      2
Lieut. Hay          ..      ..       4
Lieut. Macaulay         ..     17
R.S.M. Fraser    ..      ..      7
Pugh        ..       ..       ..      5
Shepherd          ..       ..    14
Sgt. Markham   ..       ..      0
Williams   ..       ..       ..     11
Dingle (run out)          ..      0
Goldworthy (run out)  ..      0
    Extras  ..       ..       ..       4
                      Total            67

The absence of any rank given to nearly half the team, while the others are denoted by rank (including non-commissioned officers) is reminiscent of the system which used to be operated in club cricket in the UK. This lasted till the 1960s, a distinction being shown between professional cricketers, designated by showing the surname followed by initials of the first names, alongside club-members, who would be designated by having their initials before their surnames.

Curiously, a cricket report on the following page of The Twentieth Gazette does not make this discrimination.

Other Ranks

Always (to me) rather surprising, the use of the term "Other Ranks" caught the eye of a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian in December 1919:

Your recent note in "Miscellany" regarding the magnificent service rendered by pigeons during the war (writes a correspondent) reminded me of a telegram once received at a certain R.A.F. headquarters where I was serving. It announced the arrival in Egypt of "300 pigeons and 3 Other Ranks." 

At least they warranted initial capital letters, as is still the case in the British Army. The earliest documentation of the term in the OED is from 1904 Regulations for Mobilization (with a z), in which it does not have capitals.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

'Verdun' as a personal name

It would have to be one of the strangest linguistic phenomena to come out of the war. An article in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 29 October 1936 reads as follows:

Every now and then one hears of people whose first or second Christian names are "Mafeking" or "Ladysmith" or perhaps "Buller."  Whereupon we amateur detectives, with uncanny instinct, are able to deduce that they were born at the time of the early enthusiasms of the Boer War. And it seems that there is a generation now reaching manhood which bears a similar crop of names from the Great War. The fact was revealed to me when I noticed that a twenty-year-old defendant in a Wakefield court case had "Verdun" as a Christian name.

It was in 1916 that Verdun as a war name was prominent. Who knows what examples of wartime names we may have around us? All unknowing, we may be rubbing shoulders with twenty-year-olds called Poperinghe Potts or Dickebusch Dawson; or we may be travelling on the 'bus with youngsters who sign themselves Plugstreet Brown, or Wipers Jones, or Armentieers Robinson.

And perhaps at this very moment municipally-minded families of Leeds are bestowing on their unfortunate babies the names of more modern battles. Possibly in another five years young Master Gipton Gibbs and young Miss Moortown Maggs will be attending their first kindergarten.

Indeed, one never knows, does one?

Well, persons charged with various crimes in 1936 included William Verdun Barrett, aged 10, (Western Morning News, Devon, 2 January 1936), Percy Verdun Jackson, aged 18 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 January 1936), Frank Verdun Bernard, of Broomfield Road, Chelmsford (Essex Newsman, 8 August 1936), and Nelson Verdun Fraser Collis (Aberdeen Journal, 22 August 1936).

But it was not entirely a name to be associated with stories of nefarious goings-on. Miss Winifred Verdun Albone was married on 13 April 1936 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 17 April 1936), and a teacher living in Bath was married, her attendant being her sister Miss Verdun Ham (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 26 September 1936); and on 9 October 1936 the Northampton Mercury reported on the wedding of Miss Jessie Verdun Watson to Mr. Leslie John Savage.

Why 'Verdun' and not a name associated more with British rather than French troops? Though 'Verdun' does indeed seem to have been a prominent name, neither Armentieres, Armenteers, Wipers nor Plugstreet feature as personal names. And it is noticeable that 18 years after the Armistice the 'soldiers' names' Plugstreet, Wipers and Armenteers are retained.

No First World War battle names appear within the top 1000 babies' names for the period 1910-1929, though there was indeed a strong precedent - several children were named after battles of the Boer War in the few years following that conflict.

And any news on the battles of Gipton or Moortown would be welcome.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

A former soldier visits Plugstreet in October 1919

On Wednesday 15 October 1919 the Daily Express carried the following article:

Peace Visit to Plugstreet
Famous Trench Silent and Deserted
Carpenter’s Shop

“I would not go to that place again, or to any other place where I have seen battle, except by force,” writes Mr. W. G. Shepherd, in a message to the Exchange Telegraph Company, concerning a recent visit to Ploegsteert – the “Plugstreet” he knew in 1915.

“Thousands, yes, perhaps 200,000 British lads at one time claimed “Plugstreet” as their wartime home. Every dugout was filled with a romping spirit when things were going even half well.

“At the intersections of the many board walks there were street signs reminiscent of old London. They were made by squads of carpenters and painters who had come out here, not, indeed, to make joking street signs, but to make the neat regulation crosses for British graves. They had plenty of work to do in these days in their rough little shop in the forest.

“Today I was back at ‘Plugstreet.’ I jumped down from the car bravely enough to go into the grove. I found the very trench through which I had passed out, with bent back, to the front-line trenches. It was a perfect tangle of verdure. Small raspberry bushes were growing along its edges. It was now only a ditch, but then it was a shelter for precious life. Hundreds of thousands of good men had need to die to make it safe for a man to stand there as I did.

“I worked my way along the ditch edge over the fields. Here was the first line – a zigzagging, plant-tangled furrow. In this great main trench I had seen hundreds of British soldiers living, playing cards on benches, writing letters, shaving, washing, gossiping, eating, sleeping and cooking, but always watching, always waiting, either for the enemy to come to them or for orders to go to the enemy.

“Now it was deathly silent. Not another human being was in sight. It was all too much for me – too lonely, too sad, and hopeless. I hurried back to the road where the car was standing.

“Some distance away I found the cemetery. How they must have worked since 1915, those carpenters and painters in that little shop under the trees!

“For young men who were in the war of all the lonely places on earth the loneliest and the awfullest, the place of all places on earth not to go, is a battlefield where they have been in war.”

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Pilgrimages to Ypres, early 1920s

Who went to the battlefields after the war, and how was the experience described? The Ypres Times (not the Wipers Times, this was the magazine of the Ypres League, an association for veterans) for August 1922 carried a report of the annual pilgrimage to Ypres:

About one third of those making the pilgrimage are women, many of them in mourning, and some wearing the medals of a dead son or husband. Two or three, between 70 and 80 years of age, are taking this their first, and perhaps last, chance of visiting the graves of those belonging to them in one of the many cemeteries in and around the salient. Others, after years of private and official enquiry have yielded no more than that dread word “missing,” have come almost despairingly on what seems a hopeless quest. Several children, wide-eyed and wondering, are among the party. There is one V.C., and every rank of the war-time British Army is represented by men who could find their way about the salient in the dark.

During the afternoon many of these men go out to Pilkem, Voormezeele, St. Julien, Hooge, and elsewhere to see what that “old bit of trench looks like,” or to solve the problem of that position a few hundred yards in front of their section of the line which they could never look at in daylight before. But such is the industry of the Belgian that, with few exceptions, when the places are reached, its old defenders find themselves staring at a patch of corn, of unscarred pasture-land, or of crops; for trenches and shell-holes have been filled in and the land is cultivated.

A very economic piece of writing perhaps implies a little nostalgia for the trenches as they had been, a sense of loss that time moves on and the land does not display the memory of pain.

In May 1920 a report of a similar ‘Excursion to Ypres’ was published in The Manchester Guardian. It includes this:

On leaving Zeebrugge the first day’s journey by motor takes the visitor something over  a hundred miles, with Ypres as the turning-point, and every variety of war-striken lands and recovering countryside on the way there and back. It was a point mooted with wearisome frequency in the real days of the place – when it was “functioning,” as one would have said, - and among the front-line troops in the Salient, whether they would ever care to come back and see that foul place under a peaceful aspect. Agreed, there were those at home who might be taken, not without profit to themselves and the world in general, over the low ground under Kemmel, or where Passchendaele looked down on the swamps; and there were not a few of the arm-chair gentry, whose instant presence would have been welcomed. But, for himself, it was the common verdict of the man in the mud-hole that, once “out of it,” Wipers and he could be the best of friends – at a distance.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'To fag'

'To fag' - we think we know what the slang term means; to serve an older boy, in the dodgy setting of a British Public School. But there was another use; an article in the Arbroath Herald, 4 Oct 1918, reads as follows:

After the band had bestowed its benediction in the strains of "Return to Serbia," the writer was fortunate enough to "fag" an interpreter, through whom he sought out the native Scoutmaster.

This seems to show 'fag' being used as a verb, meaning 'get hold of'. In The Grey Brigade ( a trench - actually camp - magazine of a group of London-based territorial regiments) on 26 June 1915 we find:

What is to be done with the inveterate cigarette obtainer - the man who always has a box of 50 in his kit-bag but none in his case? He is to be found in all companies. "Got a fag, old man?" is the favourite opening. The only way of escape, it seems to me, is to form an S.F.C.O.U.F. - Society For Choking Off Undesirable Faggers.

So, does 'to fag' come from the word 'fag' for cigarette, and mean originally 'try to get a fag', and from this 'try to get something for nothing', and then to 'manage to get something'?

Trench Journal column on the Quakers

Conscientious objectors came in for an enormous amount of abuse during the First World War. They were seen by many as actively hindering the war effort, and were sometimes labelled as 'bespectacled peace-cranks' - spectacles being one of the many objects specially pertaining to Germans.

It was particularly interesting to note this article in The Grey Brigade, the camp journal of a number of territorial regiments, including the London Scottish, the Kensingtons, the Queens Westminsters, and the Civil Service regiment. The article in the 26th June 1915 issue carries a few gentle prods at the unresolvable nature of the Quakers' pacifism in time of war (unresolvable other than to Quakers that is), but finishes with a surprisingly generous text:

The world needs no assurance that Quakers are not cowards, however. It is sometimes harder to clench one's teeth and turn away, than to deal the blow which would send the hated enemy staggering to the ground.

The Friends stand for a principle which may be regarded, universally at any rate, as an untried adventure. To leave the righting of wrongs to the conscience of the wrong-doer, and to the hand of God has sometimes been a satisfactory solution of a difficulty. As far as we can see at present armed evil must be met by armed good, and we are leaving it to another generation to try the experiment of unarmed righteousness.

But one thing is certain - they are brave men.

Hats off all round on this, I think.