Furphies and Whizz-bangs: Documenting the Language of Australians in the First World War

In 2015, Australia will mark the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at what came to be known as Anzac Cove (Gaba Tepe). For Australia, this event has been a significant marker of nationhood, and the legacy of Anzac plays an important role in Australian cultural and political life. The experience of the First World War also had a lasting impact on language.

We can trace the language of Australians during the war years through a variety of sources, including letters, diaries, trench publications, and newspapers. These sources attest to the impact the war had on both British English and Australian English. Australian newspapers took note of the emerging lexicon of war, printing glossaries and articles that explained the military terminology that readers might encounter in the lengthy descriptions of battles and actions being reported. Words like emplacement, grenade, mortar, and redoubt were new or unfamiliar to the average Australian reader, and explanations were necessary. As the OED’s ‘100 words that define the First World War’ shows, the war generated a language of modern warfare that forever changed the lexicon.

It was also evident as the war progressed that a lot of slang was being generated. Australian soldiers used a variety of terms to describe aspects of army life: for example, army biscuits were variously forty-niners, Anzac wafers, or concrete macaroons, and jam or treacle was referred to as flybog. Soldiers were also introduced to a range of British army slang terms, which they quickly adopted into their vocabulary: for example, rooty for bread, iron rations for emergency rations, short arm parade for a venereal disease inspection, and gravel-crushing for route marching – this last being one of many terms reflecting the tedious life of the infantryman. Many terms for information or rumours were generated as well, reflecting a general concern about a lack of information about the war or likely activities: these included terms such as dinkum oil, good oil, and furphy, all of which remained popular in Australian English after the war.

The experience of the battlefield also produced a range of terms. There was a particular variety of terms for weapons, shells, and guns: Black Maria, whizz-bang, Jack Johnson, woolly bear, and Beachy Bill are just a few of them. Death and the fear of death generated its own vocabulary. To die was to be put into cold storage, to go west, or chuck a seven. While there were some words particular to the Australians (for example, possie for position, king-hit for a significant wound, and stoush for a fight), but the fact that much of the vocabulary of the war was shared by the Anglophone armies attests to their common experiences.

Australian soldiers liked to believe in their own unique creativity when it came to language. Soldiers’ publications during the war served to promote a particular image of the Australian soldier as brave, fearless, with a disregard for authority, and ready to crack a joke whatever the circumstances. While this didn’t always match reality, it became part of an emerging ‘Anzac legend’. Language played a role in this: Australian soldiers were inveterate users of slang who spoke a language few outsiders could comprehend, and they often used this to poke fun at others. One humorous item published in a Western Australian newspaper described an Australian soldier meeting King George V, and responding to his questions with colloquialisms such as bonzer and ribuck. It ended with the King commenting: ‘I’m no snide mug at languages … but I’d give a pot of dinkum dough if I could speak Australian.’ (Perth Daily News, 28 January 1919, p. 8)

During the war years, a language of commemoration also began to emerge, which developed more fully after the war. The first Anzac Day (initially also known as Gallipoli Day), was held in 1916, marking the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Subsequent Anzac Days would incorporate features such as the Anzac service (or Anzac Day service), Dawn service, and the Anzac Day march. Anzac Day has become a day of central importance in Australia.

The First World War had a lasting effect on the English lexicon. It also had a lasting effect on Australian English, and more importantly perhaps, language became one of the vehicles by which an emerging Australian national identity with the Anzac legend at its core began to take shape. This has been a contentious aspect of Australian public culture and discussions about identity, but it is undoubtedly true that the centenary of the Anzac landing will once again emphasise the significance the war has had for Australia.

Amanda Laugesen is the Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University, Canberra. The Centre edits the range of Australian Oxford dictionaries. Amanda is the author of Furphies and Whizz-bangs: Anzac Slang from the Great War, available from Oxford University Press.

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2 thoughts on “Furphies and Whizz-bangs: Documenting the Language of Australians in the First World War

  1. Pingback: Furphies and Whizz-bangs | OUPblog

  2. Pingback: World War One: links to explore | Oxford Australia blog

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