When pigs fly: Digging into the language of the trenches

Posted by er134 at Jun 06, 2014 09:04 AM |
New introduction to The Lingo of No Man’s Land written by Professor Julie Coleman from the University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 6 June 2014

British soldiers in the trenches during the First World War had a rough time: they had to avoid archies, crumps and flying pigs – all while smoking shag, drinking tot and hunting for seam-squirrels and cootes.

While these outlandish words may have fallen out of popularity in recent years, they were part of a distinct language of slang terms invented during the First World War that have been catalogued in a contemporary dictionary which has been given new life.

The Lingo of No Man’s Land, which was republished in March of this year by the British Library with a new introduction by Professor Julie Coleman from the University of Leicester’s School of English, contains a detailed list of words, terms and colloquialisms from the trenches compiled by a Canadian soldier, Lorenzo Napoleon Smith, in 1918.

The book provides a fascinating insight into life on the front line – and sheds light on words used by soldiers in the thick of battle, some of which are still in use today; and others which have fallen out of use entirely.

Professor Coleman said: “The language of the trenches was a fascinating topic even while the war was underway. Newspapers and recruiting agencies published glossaries of trench slang as a way of bridging the gulf between civilians and those serving on the front line.

“Terms like fireworks (aerial bombardment), tin hat (helmet) and old soldier (a soldier who evades danger) humanize the experience of war by revealing the humour that made unthinkable conditions bearable. Some of the words and phrases listed in these glossaries have become unremarkable features of everyday language: now anyone can put the wind up someone, do something in an over the top way or use a joystick.”

Some words popularised in the trenches such as ‘doss’ – described as an East Indian word meaning a short sleep or nap - have a relatively similar meaning today. Other words that would not seem out of place in everyday use today include ‘dud’, meaning bad, and ‘fag’, meaning cigarette.

Other words listed in the text may be unrecognisable to some people today. Some of the more interesting and unusual words include ‘doggo’, meaning quiet or still; ‘mufti’, referring to clothes worn by civilians; and ‘shag’, a low-quality tobacco used by soldiers.

In desperate times, hungry soldiers might have been glad of a helping of ‘rat poison’ – an affectionate term for cheese; and unlucky soldiers may have found themselves falling foul to the painful and perpetual nip of a ‘coote’, a biting louse, also known as a ‘seam squirrel’, a ‘trouser rabbit’ or a ‘shiny lizard’.

The First World War also introduced some of the earliest initialisms - pronounced as letters rather than as new words - into the English language, including M.O. (medical officer), NCO (non-commissioned officer) and O.C. (officer commanding).

Professor Coleman will be talking about the dictionary at the ‘Languages and the First World War’ conference in Antwerp on Wednesday 18 June and at the British Library on Friday 20 June, where studies into changes within languages and how languages influenced each other during the war will be discussed.

For further information about the life of Lorenzo Napoleon Smith read Professor Coleman’s blog at the following address: http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/english/2014/05/16/lingo-of-no-mans-land/

For more information about the ‘Languages and the First World War’ conference in Antwerp on Wednesday 18 June see here: http://languages-and-first-world-war.tumblr.com/


Notes to editors:

More for information please contact Professor Julie Coleman at jmc21@le.ac.uk

The University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is uniquely placed as the only UK university founded in memory of those who died in the First World War.

It is no coincidence that the public fund for the endowment of a University College for Leicestershire – later to become the University of Leicester – was opened on Armistice Day in 1918. The University College was envisaged as a ‘living memorial’ to those local men who had lost their lives in the First World War. Leicester was to have, as the local paper put it, “more than a mere artistic war memorial”. The University motto 'Ut vitam habeant' ('so that they may have life') stands as a permanent reminder on every publication and degree certificate issued since.


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