The following article was published in Everybody’s Magazine (The Ridgway Company, New York) of January 1918:
Some Characteristic Slang Creations of the Soldiers
War is rich in new speech—so rich that in France, learned members of the French Academy have already begun to recognize, collect, and try to analyze some of the new language that has sprung spontaneously from the lips of poilus and Tommies in the past three years.
Some of this new speech is clear to us stay-at-homes. Of others we can appreciate the flavor only when their origin is explained. “Boche,” for instance, is an abbreviation of “caboche,” a hobnail, with a hard, rough, and square head. It was applied long ago, because of corresponding mental qualities, to the Germans as well as to all resembling them. Similarly, the Tommies call the big German guns “Berthas” in honor of the eldest daughter of Herr Krupp, the great German munitions maker.
Tommy’s great word is “Blighty.” “Blighty” to him means England, home, and all that’s worth living for. When he has a wound serious enough to send him home, he calls it a “blighty one.” The “Blighty” of the French soldier is Paris, which he affectionately and lovingly calls by a sort of pet name—“Panam.”
Tommy is perhaps likely to think most of “Blighty” when the “big stuff” comes over. The “big stuff” means the various kinds of large German shells. The high explosive ones are “crumps;” the big ones that give out a lot of black smoke, “Jack Johnsons” or “coal-boxes.” The poilus generally call the “big stuff” “marmites” or “stew-pots.”
Any misfortunes that the “big stuff” may bring are spoken of lightly in the trenches. Being killed, and so requiring the services of “Holy Joe,” the chaplain, is referred to delicately as being “huffed” or as having “clicked it,” or “gone west.” Anyway, after it is all over and, if you are lucky, you are buried—“sewed in a blanket,” as it is called—and are thereafter alluded to as “pushing up the daisies.”
Life, however, is not all one “hickboo”—as the men in the air-service and elsewhere call a rumpus, bombardment, or attack. It may even be considered “cushy”—“pretty soft,” as we say—or comfortable, when you can “cadge,” borrow, a “fag,” that is, a cigaret, or “have a doss,” sleep, in your “funk-hole” or dugout. “Kip,” or sleep, is scarce, almost as scarce as “coles,” i.e., pennies, to blow in. But then, you always have your “rooty” or bread and your “gippo” or bacon-grease soup and your “machonochie,” or tin of scientifically balanced ration, the compounder of which is said to be marked for the last atrocity victim of the war. To top off the comforts, you occasionally get a letter from “Lonely Stab,” the girl who writes and sends parcels to Tommy. Companionship of any kind is more welcome than that of the “cooties,” despite the affection apparently conveyed in this name given to the trench vermin.
The air service, like most special branches, has its own vocabulary. An officer of flying status, but who for some reason does not fly, is called a “penguin.” This name is also applied to a type of trailing machine which does not rise from the ground. An officer in the flying service without flying status is called a “kiwi” after an Australian bird. A pilot is generally called a “quirk.” A flight is called a “flip,” and if it is a distinguished failure it is called a “wash-out.” An airplane is usually called a “bus.” The great hope of the airman is to “spikebozzle” or bring down a “Zepp”, or one of the smaller non-rigid dirigibles they call “blimps.” The airman’s pest is the “onion” or large flaming anti-aircraft shell which “Archie” sends up as a sort of bouquet—with sometimes an unpleasant smell. “Archie,” is the general name for the anti-aircraft gun.
The constant association of Tommy and Frenchy has resulted in some linguistic Burbanks. (note 1) Tommy finds “compray” (note 2) much easier and shorter to say than “Do you understand?” and “Toots Sweet” (note 3) is as effective as anything to the barmaid for “hurry up,” when Tommy gets a little leave to visit an estaminet for a cup of tea. His entertainment on short leaves is usually mild, and when, on his return, his fellow Tommies ask him what happened, he replies: “father of twins”—which is his equivalent for the emphatic negative, “pas de tout.” (note 4)
The French soldier slang shows an even higher spirit of banter and playfulness. Poilu, that one word of national reverence, means simply brave, strong. (note 5) The French soldier is also called “un bleu” from the light, gay, affectionate blue of his uniform. The enemy is referred to good-naturedly as “les Boches” or “les bobosses” or “the moles”, or simply “Fritz.” Out of “Boche” the poilus have made all sorts of expressions associated with the Germans or their qualities. “Bocherie” is German cruelty; “Bochonnerie,” is any kind of nastiness; “Bochisme” is the way the poilu alludes to German Kultur, and “bochiser” has become a common word to express spying of any kind.
Next to “Boche” the deepest term of reproach in French is to call another “un embusqué,” which means, literally, a soldier or civilian who has “ambushed” himself or taken some post free from hardship or danger. It is much more severe than our “slacker.” All who are down there fighting for France are “les copains”—literally, the sharers of bread.
The poilu calls his bayonet by various pet names: “Rosalie” (especially for the new-style bayonet which makes a wound like a cross), “a knitting-needle,” “a roasting-spit,” a “Josephine,” “a fork;” and the old-style bayonet “a cabbage cutter,” “a corkscrew.” A motor-cycle is a “teuf-teuf”. His machine gun is a “coffee-mill” or an “unsewing machine.” (note 6) Small bombshells are called “sparrows,” and bullets are “prunes” or “chestnuts.” The poilu’s knapsack is his “crystal closet.” The famous .75 field piece is called “the little Frenchman” or “Charlotte”. “Un cou-cou” is a small bombshell; and a large bombshell is called “un colis a domicile”, literally a C.O.D. (note 7)
The American poilu is not going over unprovided with a lingo. He calls himself, by the way, a “doughboy” or “crusher,” which is fairly American-sounding. Cavalrymen he calls “bow legs;” a soldier who shares his shelter is his “bunkie;” the company barber is “butcher;” a soldier who works for an officer is a “dog robber;” the commanding officer is alluded to as “K.O.;” a junior officer is called a “goat;” the provost sergeant is a “hobo;” a teamster is a “mule skinner;” an old officer is called “old file;” the drum-major is the “regimental monkey;” the doctor is “saw-bones;” a new second lieutenant is a “shavetail;” field artillerymen are “wagon soldiers;” and a trumpeter or bandsman is a “windjammer.” And our doughboys are like Tommy and poilu in that they never “bellyache” or complain when the “slum,” i.e., the meat or vegetable stew, or the “sowbelly,” as the bacon is called, are bad. It’s all in the game—the game of “Kan the Kaiser”—which is the only American equivalent thus far of any of the French war slogans like “Ils ne passeront pas,” or “On les aura,” “We’ll get them,” “They shall not pass.”
1-: linguistic Burbanks: probably an allusion to Luther Burbank (1849-1926), American horticulturist, whose experiments in cross-breeding led to new types and improved varieties of plants –
2-: comprey: for French compris?, meaning understood? –
3-: Toots Sweet: for French tout de suite, meaning at once, immediately –
4-: correct French form: pas du tout, meaning not at all –
5-: poilu: literally hairy, and by extension brave –
6-: an unsewing machine: in French, une machine à découdre; it is a pun on machine à coudre (i.e. sewing machine) and the verb découdre, which literally means to take the stitches out of, but is used figuratively in the sense of to fight –
7-: un colis à domicile: literally a parcel (delivered) at home –
2 thoughts on “British, U.S. and French soldiers’ slang during WWI”
To discover the french slang of WW1 , try the novel by Barbusse ” le Feu”. Excellent blog.
Thank you for the advice, and for following my blog. That’s much appreciated and encouraging.