Photo by A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
One of the subtlest and most surprising legacies of the First World War—which the United States entered more than 100 years ago, when the country declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917—is its effect on our language. Not only were newly named weapons, equipment, and military tactics being developed almost continually during the War, but the rich mixture of soldiers’ dialects, accents, nationalities, languages, and even social backgrounds (particularly after the introduction of conscription in Great Britain in 1916) on the front line in Europe and North Africa produced an equally rich glossary of military slang.
Not all of these words and phrases have remained in use to this day, but here are 20 words and phrases that are rooted in First World War slang.
Apparently derived from an old music hall song called Archibald, Certainly Not!, Archie was a British military slang word for German anti-aircraft fire. Its use is credited to an RAF pilot, Vice-Marshall Amyas Borton, who apparently had a habit of singing the song’s defiant chorus—“Archibald, certainly not! / Get back to work at once, sir, like a shot!”—as he flew his airplane between the exploding German shells on the Western Front.
2. Basket Case
While it tends to be used in a fairly lighthearted way today (usually describing someone who constantly makes stupid mistakes, or who crumbles under pressure), the original basket case is an unexpectedly gruesome reminder of just how bloody the War became. In its original context, a basket case was a soldier who had been so badly injured that he had to be carried from the battlefield in a barrow or basket, usually with the implication that he had lost all four of his limbs.
Derived from vilayati, an Urdu word meaning "foreign," blighty is an old military nickname for Great Britain. It first emerged among British troops serving in India in the late 19th century, but didn’t really catch on until the First World War; the Oxford English Dictionary records only one use in print prior to 1914. A "blighty wound" or "blighty one" was an injury severe enough to warrant being sent home, the English equivalent of a German Heimatschuss, or “home-shot.” Self-inflicted blighty wounds were punishable by death, although there are no known reports of anyone being executed under the rule.
As a military slang name for an airship, blimp dates back to 1916. No one is quite sure where the word comes from, although one popular theory claims that because blimps were non-rigid airships (i.e., they could be inflated and collapsed, unlike earlier rigid, wooden-framed airships), they would supposedly be listed on military inventories under the heading “Category B: Limp.” However, a more likely idea is that the name is onomatopoeic, and meant to imitate the sound that the taut skin or “envelope” of a fully inflated airship makes when flicked.
Booby-trap had been in use since the mid-19th century to refer to a fairly harmless prank or practical joke when it was taken up by troops during the First World War to describe an explosive device deliberately disguised as a harmless object. Calling it “one of the dirty tricks of war,” the English journalist Sir Philip Gibbs (1877-1962) ominously wrote in his day-by-day war memoir From Bapaume to Passchendaele (1918) that “the enemy left … slow-working fuses and ‘booby-traps’ to blow a man to bits or blind him for life if he touched a harmless looking stick or opened the lid of a box, or stumbled over an old boot.”
As a nickname for body lice or head lice, cooties first appeared in trenches slang in 1915. It’s apparently derived from the coot, a species of waterfowl supposedly known for being infested with lice and other parasites.
Crump is an old English dialect word for a hard hit or blow that, after 1914, came to be used for the explosion of a heavy artillery shell. A crump-hole was the crater the shell left behind.
Before the War, a daisy-cutter had been a cricket ball or baseball pitched low so that it practically skims along the surface of the ground. The name was eventually taken up by troops to describe an artillery shell fitted with an impact fuse, meaning that it exploded on impact with the ground rather than in the air thereby causing the greatest amount of damage.
In the 19th century, dingbat was used much like thingummy (the British term for thingamajig) or whatchamacallit as a general placeholder for something or someone whose real name you can’t recall. It came to be used of a clumsy or foolish person during the First World War, before being taken up by Australian and New Zealand troops in the phrase "to have the dingbats" or "to be dingbats," which meant shell-shocked, nervous, or mad.
Like blighty, dekko was another term adopted into English by British troops serving in 19th-century India that gained a much larger audience during the First World War; the Oxford English Dictionary has no written record of the term between its first appearance in 1894 and 1917. Derived from a Hindi word of equivalent meaning, dekko was typically used in the phrase "to take a dekko," meaning "to have a look at something."
"To be in a flap," meaning "to be worried," dates from 1916. It was originally a naval expression derived from the restless flapping of birds, but quickly spread into everyday English during the First World War. The adjective unflappable, meaning unflustered or imperturbable, appeared in the 1950s.
12. Iron Rations
The expression iron rations was used as early as the 1860s to describe a soldier’s dry emergency rations, which typically included a selection of hard, gritty provisions like rice, barley, bread, biscuits, salt, and bacon. During the First World War, however, the term came to be used as a nickname for shrapnel or shell-fire.
The UK declared war on August 4, 1914, and New Zealand joined immediately after. By August 29, New Zealand had successfully captured Samoa—only the second German territory to fall since the war began. Within months, New Zealand troops, alongside those from Australia, began to arrive in Europe. They quickly gained the nickname Kiwis, as an image of New Zealand’s national bird was featured on many of their military badges, emblems and insignias. Incredibly, some 100,444 total New Zealanders saw active service during the First World War—equivalent to 10 percent of the entire country’s population.
English-speaking soldiers frequently found themselves serving alongside French-speaking soldiers in the First World War, often with little chance of one understanding the other. So when French soldiers would exclaim il n’y a plus! meaning “there’s no more!” the English soldiers quickly commandeered the expression and Anglicized it as napoo, which they took to mean finished, dead, or completely destroyed.
English troops arriving in France in 1914 were unceremoniously loaded onto basic railway transport carriages marked with the French notice “Hommes: 40, Chevaux: 8” on their doors. The notice designated the carriage’s maximum occupancy (“40 men, 8 horses”), but for those English troops with no knowledge of French, the carriages themselves became known as omms-n-chevoos.
Pogey-bait was candy, or a sweet snack of any kind, among American and Canadian troops. No one is quite sure where the term comes from, but the first part could be pogy, a nickname for the menhaden fish (i.e. literally “fish-bate”), or else pogue, a slang word for a non-combatant or weakly soldier.
Although the adjective shell-shocked has been traced back as far as 1898 (when it was first used slightly differently to mean “subjected to heavy fire”), the first true cases of shell-shock emerged during the First World War. The Oxford English Dictionary has since traced the earliest record back to an article in The British Medical Journal dated January 30, 1915: “Only one case of shell shock has come under my observation. A Belgian officer was the victim. A shell burst near him without inflicting any physical injury. He presented practically complete loss of sensation in the lower extremities and much loss of sensation.”
Spike was used during the First World War to mean “to render a gun unusable.” Spike-bozzled, or spike-boozled, came to mean "completely destroyed," and was usually used to describe airships and other aircraft rather than weaponry. Exactly what bozzled means in this context is unclear, but it’s probably somehow related to bamboozled in the sense of something being utterly confounded or stopped in its path.
One of the German propagandists’ most famous World War I slogans was "Gott Strafe England!" or “God punish England," which was printed everywhere in Germany from newspaper advertisements to postage stamps. In response, Allied troops quickly adopted the word strafe into the English language after the outbreak of the War, and variously used it to refer to a heavy bombardment or attack, machine gun fire, or a severe reprimand.
Zigzag has been used in English since the 18th century to describe an angular, meandering line or course but during the First World War came to be used as a euphemism for drunkenness, presumably referring to the zigzagging walk of a soldier who had had one too many.