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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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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Women and the failure of language - First World War


The current focus in television representations of the First World War seems to be on the role of women as nurses. It is a forum which at least gives some status to older women, who in this environment are often shown as professional, distant and strong, and often phlegmatic, even tight-lipped. All of which connects strongly to the relationship between women and speech during the First World War, as shown in two of the essays in the volumes Languages and the First World War, currently in the process of publication.

The need to silence women was clearly apparent in the case of Mata Hari, a woman seen as threatening, dangerous, exposing weakness, and therefore needing to be rooted out. In Julie Wheelwright’s essay for the second volume (Representation and Memory) the concept of espionage and the implications of secret language are ultimately about revealing the hidden, and hiding that which should not be revealed; far from state censorship but equally a relationship between fear and the state, the story of the ‘spy’ shot by the French is one of mysogyny, control, and race. But it also raises the question of womens’ relationship with language in the context of shifting communication structures and the sudden changes of cultural focus during wartime. The language of race framed the fear of the threat presented by the outsider Mata Hari, as she was used and blamed, as she was both the mangeuse and the tool, in ultimately what was a sadly clumsy and all too recognisable failure of the male to manage fear and desire. The name 'Mata Hari' evokes confusion, not knowing where we stand in terms of power, as regards fiction and non-fiction, and politically, racially and sexually, and reaches out into a future post-1918. 

What happens when women’s opportunities for verbal communication are severely circumscribed is considered by Milos Damjanovic in his essay on the effects of the conflict on the Jewish community of Kosovo-Metohija in the Balkans. Women in this urban context were strongly based in the home and the cultures of the home; this is particularly seen in the linguistic field, where women acted as the guardians of the traditional language, Ladino, ultimately transferred from the Iberian peninsula. The unintended consequence of the limitations on women applied by the social structure led to Ladino being not so much actively defended from influence, as becoming a ‘home’ language in a multilingual environment. Damjanovic proposes that this gaurdianship occurred because women in this culture were prevented from having linguistic contact with other cultures.

While women, particularly mothers, clearly had a major role as guardians of the concept of ‘home’ during the war, older women had a more difficult position. Often satirised as out of touch, useless, and dressed in the fashions of the late Victorian period, their status was highlighted in their supposed restricted awareness of language change or by a limiting of their voices. A humorous postcard shows an elderly woman visiting a wounded soldier – ‘You weren’t wounded at the Front, then?’ she asks; the wounded soldier replies to the discomfited visitor ‘No, lady! A shell exploded at the base, but the base happened to be mine’. She is embarrassed, while the soldier in the next bed is laughing.

In others, an elderly woman talks to a sailor: ‘I see the papers say you were stripped for action – I wonder you didn’t catch your death of cold’, or tells a soldier on crutches ‘I know just what it must feel like, poor fellow – I had a corn plaster on all last week, and it’s been somethink awful’.

‘Getting it wrong’, in one advert, provokes what now, in a period supposedly less affected by decorum and politeness, seems to be staggering offence. An advertisement for Ariston Cigarettes was published in Punch 16 May 1917.

Cigarette Situations No 6 - If the dear old lady asks you what you think of the war – the fitting smoke for this situation is Ariston.
In all moments of exasperation, of embarrassment, of disquietude, the smoking of an Ariston – and yet another – assists in readjusting matters to harmony; its fragrant, unparalleled taste helps thought and brings an appreciation of the things that really matter.

It is a pretty damning avowal that elderly women do not matter. Hospital visiting was regularly shown as unwanted interference: in this postcard a visitor is told to ‘Oppitubitch’ as well as being shown as mistaking the term for the name of a Russian; our attention may be taken entirely by the use of ‘bitch’, so we might not notice the implication that she is parochially startled by  the foreign.


In an environment where people went to great lengths to show that they were ‘doing their bit’, for women above a certain age contributions to the war effort were undesirable and fit only for ridicule. Their attempts, and as a result they themselves, were seen as tiresome, interfering, embarrassing, and unwanted.




Even after the war older women were held up as making verbal mistakes or as being the subject of verbal mistakes. Three cartoons in Punch show older women making verbal mistakes (the issue of 8 January 1919 seemed to be out to show older women in a bad light). One cartoon has a ‘Dear Old Lady (to returning warrior)' saying: “Welcome back to Blimey”. Another cartoon shows a priest addressing an older woman: ‘I hear your husband is home from France. Is the army going to release him?’ ‘Well, he’s got a fortnight before he goes back, but by that time he hopes to be demoralised’. In another cartoon in the same issue one older woman is talking to another: ‘I wish my hsband had joined them pivots instead of the foosileers. He’d a been demobilised by now’.   In these instances older women are shown on the edge of the ‘adversity group’ who were identified by their familiarity with, and their correct use of slang. If we think of slang as being centred on the soldiers, sailors and aviators, with a secondary ring of familiarity being the officers, and then the press, and then readers of the press, older women are clearly the users of ‘failed trench slang’, not quite outsiders, but indicators again of what not to do, despite and indeed because of their best intentions. Older women’s mistakes – ‘blimey’, ‘demoralised’, ‘pivots’ – show the standard; this is what the language at the time should not be. Even if they did use a term correctly this was likely to be interpreted as an encroachment into a register that was inappropriate.Helen Z Smith in her semi-autobiographical novel Not So Quiet (1930) mocks the mother’s use of the word ‘cushy’ – ‘How well up in war slang is Mother’. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

Perhaps older women’s most positively shown power was that of tight-lipped outrage. Silence could be strong, and potentially intimidating to an enemy – this cartoon by the celebrated Charles Graves appeared in the Hun's Handbook (1915).









1 comment:

  1. Another instance of this can be found in a letter from Lt Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain (31 October 1916, in "Letters from a lost generation" by Bostridge/Bishop):

    "Really I am beginning to agree with the Rifleman who when some dear old lady said 'what a terrible War it is' replied 'Yes Mum, but better than no War.'"

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