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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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Thursday, 19 March 2015

A bit of attitude, and possibly altitude, in defining 'strafe' (1919)

In the volume of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (later to become the OED) covering Si to St, published in 1919, there are very few quotations illustrative of usage which date from after 1910. 

One entry which had to have recent quotations was the very recent adoption of the word 'strafe'. The entry is headed: 

  ‘Strafe, v. slang. [From the Ger. phrase Gott strafe England, ‘God punish England’, a common salutation in Germany in 1914 and the following years.] trans. Used (originally by British soldiers in the war against Germany) in various senses suggested by its origin : To punish; to do damage to ; to attack fiercely ; to heap imprecations on …’ 

The citations are worth quoting as they indicate a number of concepts. Firstly amusement at, and a bit of superiority over the German language – ‘1916 Times Lit. Suppl. 10 Feb.62/1 The Germans are called the Gott-strafers, and strafe is becoming a comic English word’. How to beat your enemy - take a hate-word and turn it into a comic word; it's not far from the way the gay community seized the word 'queer' and by using it removed its barbs.

This is followed by the awesomely dismissive: '1916 Blackw. Mag. Feb. 284/1 Intermittent strafes we are used to.'

Then a languid sense of superiority, emphasised by the taking over of an enemy word – ‘1916 MS.Let. fr. Front (Feb or Mar.) There is not much Hun artillery fire, but as our guns strafe them well every day, I expect they will wake up and return the compliment.’ 

And the same sense of amusement in ‘1916 Daily Mail 1 Nov. 4/4 the word strafe is now almost universally used. Not only is an effective bombardment of the enemy’s lines or a successful trench raid described by Tommy as ‘strafing the Fritzes,’ but there are occasions when certain ‘brass hats’ … are strafed by imprecation. And quite recently the present writer heard a working-class woman … shout to one of her offspring ‘Wait till I git ‘old of yer, I’ll strarfe yer, I will!’

All of these defuse the power of the German word, and give a sense of not being impressed or disturbed by it at all – it becomes little more than a word to frighten children with. How do we read this? How does the selection of illustrations indicate how this group of lexicographers looked back at the war? It is hard not to interpret their attitude as one of amused superiority.  

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