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How World War I changed the way we speak

Nov 29, 2012

‘Lousy’, ‘bloke’ and ‘cushy’ are among the words that emerged from the trenches.

World War I was one of the most destructive events in history, but it was also ‘a very creative time for language’ according to historian Peter Doyle and etymologist Julian Walker, who researched the topic for a new book Trench Talk: Words of the First World War. The trenches forced soldiers of many different backgrounds together for the first time, so slang words from one class soon spread among the whole army, and the general population when soldiers returned home.

Examples include ‘chum’ for ‘friend’, originally a term used by criminals, ‘scrounging’ – a Northern word for hunting wild rabbits which came to mean looking for any food – and ‘bloke’,  a lower class way of referring to gentlemen. Soldiers also picked up foreign words like ‘khush’, the Hindi word for pleasure which became ‘cushy’ or comfortable, while trading with local people in France led to soldiers adopting the French word ‘souvenir’. They even borrowed words from the enemy; ‘strafe’ means ‘punish’ in German but British soldiers used it to refer to heavy bombardment after seeing German propaganda slogans reading ‘Gott Strafe England’ (‘God Punish England’).

However, some things about the war were so new to the soldiers that no old words would do, so they came up with their own. These included ‘crummy’ and the more obvious ‘lousy’ to describe being infested with lice, as well as ‘conk out’ for when an aeroplane failed to fly.

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