First World War slang words we still use today
In Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, Pegler reveals how common words and phrases such as ‘bumf’ and ‘having a chat’ originated in the trenches. Drawing on his interviews with a number of First World War veterans conducted in the 1980s, he recalls how the men were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences – they made friends for life, and the camaraderie they shared was something that many never experienced again.
Here, writing for History Extra, Pegler details 10 words and phrases circulated during the war that still remain in use today: In 1914–18, however, for the first time in Britain’s history, huge numbers of men from every conceivable walk of life had been put together in a huge citizen army, and as a result they developed their own language. But whereas in the past this slang had mostly remained within the ranks of the armed forces, during the First World War much of it was transferred by the soldiers from the western front to the home front.
The songs and slang used by these men became not only popular, but almost fashionable in wartime England, and much of this has remained with us to this day. Here are 10 examples that might surprise you.
1 ‘Having a chat’
A commonplace expression today that owes its origin to that most pernicious of insects, the louse. Body lice were endemic in the trenches, and they inhabited the seams and pleats of clothing where they bred in huge numbers, causing skin rashes and itching.
The now almost universal word for a bottle of wine. The British soldier has traditionally failed since time immemorial to master the pronunciation of even the simplest foreign words, and it is merely a corruption of the French ‘vin blanc’.
Prior to the war some small defensive military fortifications had been constructed, generally referred to as blockhouses. Mostly these were made of heavy timber – many were constructed during the Boer War.
The origin of this now very British word is shrouded in mystery. It may have come from the Arabic ‘beladi’, meaning ‘my own country’, or the Hindi word ‘bilaik’, referring to a foreign place or country. For the Tommies, it meant only one thing: home.
The first modern armoured fighting vehicles were produced in great secrecy by Fosters of Lincoln.
A superstition that it was bad luck to light a third cigarette from the same match. This was actually based on sound experience: it took a German sniper about five seconds at night to see, aim and fire at a light source, and a flaring match was clearly visible on a dark night from well over 500 yards. Five seconds was also about the time it took for the third man to light up.
The first modern armoured fighting vehicles were produced in great secrecy by Fosters of Lincoln. To prevent any hint of their purpose being discovered by German spies, workers were told they were mobile water tanks. Some were even clearly marked in Cyrillic ‘Water tanks for Russia’. The ruse certainly worked, because their first use on the Somme on 15 September 1916 was a complete surprise to the Germans.
Prior to the First World War, armies had employed specialist marksmen known as ‘sharpshooters’, but when war broke out the Germans fielded thousands of highly trained riflemen, usually equipped with telescopic-sighted rifles. British officers referred to them as ‘snipers’, which harked back to the army in India in the late 18th century when officers would go bird hunting in the hills – the tiny Snipe being one of the hardest of targets to hit.
8 ‘Over the top’
An example of an expression that has seen a resurgence, although now with a very different meaning. Originally it referred to the physical act of launching an attack by climbing over the sandbag parapet in front of a trench – literally by going over the top. It thus became synonymous with setting off on any highly dangerous venture, usually with a slim chance of survival.
Often used today as a reference to the annoying, and all-but-worthless small change that accumulates in one’s pockets or purse. It is possibly the most incorrectly used word from the war, as it is invariably misapplied to describe the lethal flying splinters from high-explosive shells.
Printed paper that is produced in huge quantities for no discernable reason, and apparently has no information value. The junk mail we all receive on a daily basis is a prime example.
It is derived from the army term ‘bum-fodder’ – paper that has only one possible practical use. It is originally from prewar schoolboy slang then appropriated by the soldiers to refer to excessive paperwork. It generally referred to the endless streams of army orders that were issued from headquarters.