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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.


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.

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