Rediscovering words from the Great War

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Amanda Laugesen takes a look at slang terms used by Aussie soldiers during the First World War.

In my recent book, Furphies and Whizz-bangs: Anzac Slang from the Great War, I had the opportunity to revisit some of the classic collections of war slang, including the Australian publication Digger Dialects, written in 1919 by W.H. Downing, and the British Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918, compiled by John Brophy and Eric Partridge and published in 1930. I also took another look at the unpublished manuscript collection compiled by A.G. Pretty of the staff of the Australian War Memorial, ‘A Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.’, collected in the period 1921 to 1924. (It is available online through the Australian National Dictionary Centre website.)

These glossaries have always been a rich source of evidence for the slang terms used by Australian soldiers, but in the past finding other evidence for these terms in contemporary records was difficult. While troop publications and soldiers’ letters and diaries allowed us to trace some of the terms in the context of wartime use, others remained unattested anywhere other than in the glossaries. The advent of the internet, especially the digitisation of newspapers, has in part changed this. In researching my book I was able to use Trove, the National Library of Australia’s gateway to digitised Australian newspapers, to trace terms for which we hitherto had little or no evidence. This gave me a broader understanding of the language of Australian soldiers, and also suggested the ways in which newspapers became a means of communicating the words, thoughts, and feelings of soldiers to a broad home readership.

Terms for which Trove provided additional evidence included:

mother’s pet, from the initials ‘M.P.’ and referring to a military policeman. This term was included in Downing’s collection but no other evidence was located. One reference was found in Trove in a humorous item in a 1918 newspaper: Garge: ‘I see you’ve got M.P. on your sleeve. Be you a member of Parliament, then?’ Military Policeman (sarcastically): ‘No, I’m mother’s pet.’ (Cobram Courier, 31 October 1918, p. 3)

Parapet Joe, a term for a German machine-gunner whose gunfire would prevent a soldier from looking over the parapet of a trench. Although mentioned in several slang dictionaries as a First World War term, it was not well attested. I found evidence of Australian soldiers using the term in newspapers from 1917. For example, a Tasmanian newspaper, the Zeehan and Dundas Herald, noted in its ‘News from the Front’ column: ‘Have had the bullets whistling over my head in the trench like a swarm of bees around a man. One German in particular we call “Parapet Joe” can almost play a tune with his machine gun. Goes from one end to the other of our section, and just chips up the edge of the parapet right along.’ (22 March, p. 4)

pig-stabber, a term for a bayonet. This was found only in Downing and Pretty’s collections, and is a variant of pig-sticker, recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. A search of Trove turned up additional evidence: An Australian signaller wrote of his experiences at Gallipoli, saying ‘I set out with my pig-stabber ready and the magazine full of “Turkish delight,” and reached a communication trench going off from the main trench. There I found a Turk in a good hole throwing bombs.’ (Adelaide Daily Herald, 6 January 1916, p. 2)

The fact that these terms can be traced in Australian newspapers from the wartime period suggests that people at home were well aware of many of the slang and other war terms that emerged during the war. This in turn suggests that Australians at home were more aware of the realities of war than is sometimes assumed. While soldiers would not have revealed all of their experiences in letters home (especially in those that found their way into print), they did make liberal use of slang and technical terms. A term such as pig-stabber left little to the imagination.

One of the most exciting findings of my research was this connection between the language of the front and home. In recent years scholars have increasingly argued for understanding the ways the culture of home and fighting front intersected; the rich online archives of newspapers and the study of language provide us with evidence that further complicates our understanding of what people at home understood of the soldier’s experience.

Amanda-LaugesenDr Amanda Laugesen is Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU. She completed her PhD in the History Program at the ANU in 2000, and subsequently worked as a research editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, ANU, as well as undertaking teaching in the History Department. Amanda’s research includes publications in the areas of historical memory, the history of reading, libraries and publishing, cultural history (with a particular interest in the cultural history of war), the history of Australian English, and lexicography.

Our biannual newsletter Ozwords contains articles on various aspects of English, especially Australian English, in partnership with the Australian National Dictionary Centre. If you are interested in reading more on Australian English and hearing news from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, why not subscribe?

One thought on “Rediscovering words from the Great War

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

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