10 Ways World War I Changed the English Language


Language is always evolving, changing as our civilization changes. As populations move, local dialects mix, vocabularies blend, die off, or go viral and infect the mainstream. Before the Internet brought everyone online the biggest events to bring large numbers of different dialects styles to together was war.

One hundred years ago the First World War ( July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918 ) was a truly global conflict, bringing together different nations, different classes of people, speaking different languages and even different dialects of English. From this mixing pot, and the horrors of war, mainstream English changed.

10. Serbia is served

European tensions were at an all-time high in the years leading up to World War I. The leading Empires of the day looked to control what they had while searching for ways to expand at the expense of the others. Tiny in relation to the ancient Empires of Turkey, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, Serbia was an upstart nation that had recently won its independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

In 1914 the fire that would ignite Europe sparked when the terrorist group the Black Hand assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The assassination caused the Austro-Hungarian Empire to declare war on Serbia, which set in motion a set of alliances that, in 1914, saw most of Europe declaring war on each other.

At the time Serbia was so new that English media hadn’t even settled on how to spell its name, with most calling it “Servia.” This annoyed the tiny nation to no end, causing the Serbian Legation in London to file an official protest and plea to change the standard spelling of Servia to Serbia. The Serbs found Servia “highly offensive to our people mainly because it suggests a false derivation … meaning ‘to serve’. It is a source of hidden pain to Serbians to see [media] persist in using the corrupt forms.”

9. Ways to express medical problems

Thousands of men spent long hours, days, weeks stuck in muddy, flooded trenches that were breeding grounds for disease and sickness. Outside of the trench was even worse, as men were ripped apart by bullets and shrapnel.

This incredible amount of misery created a number words that we still use to this day. “Cooties,” “lousy” and “crummy” came from the nicknames soldiers gave the ever present lice that infested their damp uniforms. Someone barely alive either mentally or physically was called a “Basket Case”, while to “get in a flap” refers to being worried or excited and spawned the term “unflappable” or “marked by assurance and self-control”.

8. Words borrowed from India

When the British Empire called up its vast Imperial resources it brought in the veteran and very professional Indian Army that had been fighting for decades for the British Empire. The British and Indian Army were very well integrated and Indian words had been making their way into the British Army for years, but with WW1 the Indians mixed with other soldiers from many other countries.

Many loanwords spread throughout the multinational Allied front but probably the most famous is “cushy” from the Urdu word khush, or “pleasure.” Soon everyone was using cushy to describe plum assignments, trenches that weren’t under a foot of water, or front lines that were rarely active. All were all cush, or cushy. Another Indian word that entered the mainstream was “Blighty” from the Urdu word “vilayati”, meaning “foreign” or “British.” During the War, it evolved into a nickname for the motherland, or Great Britain. Homesick soldiers would talk about returning to Blighty or what they would do when then finally made it home, to Blighty.

7. Words borrowed from the French

While the British called up all the resources of the Empire, the war was fought on French soil and so was fiercely defended by the brave men of the French Army. As the Allied nations fought side by side with French units or went on leave in French towns, they picked up some French words and phrases like “toot sweet” from the French “tout de suite” or to do something immediately.

Other words like “skive” or someone who is lazy and avoids work (probably from esquiver ‘to escape, avoid’) also entered the English language.

6. Words for Islam, Muslim

At the start of the 20th century, the Islamic Ottoman Empire was waning and out of the minds of most of the Western world. Large populations of Muslims existed throughout the world, just like today, but they were minorities in larger empires. There was also no large-scale Muslim immigration to the new world or to Europe. As such, Islam was an exotic and abstract concept. This changed with WW1. Suddenly the Islamic Ottoman Empire was allied with the Germans while vast Muslim armies fought for both the British and French.

Thrust into the news, Western media didn’t know how to describe the Islamic people, variously calling them by a variety of spellings like “Moslem” or “Mussulman.” Others media described them as the “people of Mohammed” with terms like “Mohammedans” or “Mahometans.” This caused great offense to Muslims, as it implied that they worshiped Mohammed instead of Allah.

5. English gets wasted

The brave souls fighting in Europe had a mix of boredom, money in the pocket, youth, and the ever present possibility of a future horrible and violent death at the front. Any soldier will tell you that this is the perfect recipe for blowing off a little (or a lot of) steam. Behind the front lines, entertainment centers sprouted up catering to the millions of soldiers that needed a little R&R. France even set up its own system of brothels to cater to the needs of Allied soldiers, the infamous Military Campaign Brothels.

Out of this party atmosphere, soldiers developed their own slang for their brethren who had a little too much and were wasted out of their mind. “Wash out” came to describe an aspiring officer who failed in their effort to get a commission. It quickly spread to represent any type of failure including the more modern use of “that party was a washout.” To drink too much, or “to binge” was before the war a local term just used in Lancashire. In the Army, the term quickly spread and has firmly embedded itself in even our modern culture.

4. The evolving meaning of gay

Generations of children used to use the word gay with its supposed double meaning either homosexual or happy. Something like “you’re gay the happy way!” Only for decades, it hasn’t meant happy. Of course 100 years ago during World War 1 was a different time. At that time, gay did indeed mean happy, which of course created some interesting headlines when viewed through modern eyes. Take for example the December 24, 1914 headline in the Seattle Star talking about Berlin during its first Christmas at War, “Berlin Cafes Jammed; Gay.” While Berlin was merry in its first wartime Christmas, its ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire was having a tougher time as told by this Tacoma Times December 1, 1914 headline, “Gay Vienna Goes Hungry.” Back in America, this May 8, 1915 New-York Tribune told people “Officers Gay In Clubhouse.”

Away from the war was this May 19, 1916 headline from the Chicago Tribune, “Boys have gay spending orgy on teacher’s $80” ($80 in 1916 = $1,756.04 in 2017). Another eyebrow raiser is this from the Seattle Star, from January 14, 1915, “Gay Old Daddy ducks out with young son’s wife.”

3. Language of technology

The First World War caused many revolutions but also revolutionized war itself. For the first time, nations were able to industrialize military death. New technologies sprung from more and more efficient ways to kill each other. Some of the everyday words that we use come from this conflict. “Blimp” comes from the military’s intense desire to make military jargon through abbreviations or shortening words. In this case “British Class B airship” plus “limp”, aka an airship without a frame, became BLIMP.

The French efforts to hide their movements from the ever watchful Germans necessitated a new word. The French came up with “Camouflage” from the Parisian slang “to disguise” and the French camouflet, or “puff of smoke.”

Extended trench warfare was a new concept that led to the stalemate of WW1. To break the enemy’s lines a new machine was needed. Its British champion, and future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill used the term landship or “caterpillar machine-gun destroyer” but in all government communication, the code word “tank” as in “water tank” was used. The nickname stuck and now we refer to the concept of a tracked, armored vehicle as a tank. While we talked about Allied borrowed words, some words also came from the enemy. The German phrase “Gott strafe England!” (“God punish England!”) was widely used in German propaganda. Allied propagandists quickly adopted the term and it evolved to mean being attacked from a machine gun or airplane, “to strafe.”

2. Shells of death

One of the greatest weapons of WW1 was the artillery shell. It could vaporize whole squadrons of exposed men and cover areas with a deadly metal shrapnel shower. It could also be used as a tool to destroy fortifications, trenchworks, or even cut up the barbed wire entanglements. All sides used a variety of artillery shells for different purposes and so soldiers quickly gave nicknames to each.

These words eventually entered mainstream English which is why we now still use “pipsqueak”, “plonker”, “fizz-bang,” or “whizz-bang” – words that originally described the sounds artillery shells made. On the flip side, shells that didn’t explode were “duds” which eventually entered English as a mainstream way to say failure.

1. Pilots

With a rickety plane, on December 17, 1903 the Wright Brothers made history with the first powered, controlled and sustained heavier than air flight. Just over 10 years later WW1 broke out and from the start, aviation played a key part. Generals clamored for their bird’s eye shots of the front lines. On August 15th, 1914 the first aerial dogfight took place between Serbian pilot Miodrag Tomic and an Austro-Hungarian plane. Soon the skies became one more battleground of the war.

Since it was such a new technology the world’s media and the English language itself had not worked out what to call these men and women who braved the skies. At first, they used Latin based creations like “aviator” or “aviatrix” for women. Then they tried to get more literal, using terms like “Airman” or “Birdman.” They tried more scientific terms like “aeronaut” or “aerialist” before settling on what we use today, “pilot” or the less common “aviator.”

Jon Lucas covers WW1 live, 100 years ago. You can follow the action on Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram

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1 Comment

  1. Great list! I will share this with some of my English teacher colleagues (I teach Spanish). Thanks so much, Jon Lucas!