World War One gave rise to expressions and slang such as blighty and cushy, but only some are still used, says Kate Wild, senior assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Zepps in a cloud, anyone? Toot sweet! But liberty cabbage – no bon.
If you’re not sure what the last line means, you’re not alone. WW1 gave rise to a number of slang and colloquial expressions such as these, but some lasted longer than others.
Words and the war
The close contact of French and British troops in WW1 resulted in a number of slang expressions borrowed from French, often with humorous anglicisation of spelling and pronunciation. Some are very much associated with the war and did not make their way into mainstream colloquial English. For example no bon (English no alongside French bon, meaning “good”) and napoo (from il n’y en a plus or il n’y a plus – “there is no more”), which was used in the war to mean “finished”, “no more”, or as a verb to mean “kill” (“Poor Bill got na-poohed by a rifle-grenade yesterday.”) Others, such as toot sweet (from tout de suite – “immediately”), are still in use. Toot sweet is, strictly speaking, not a WW1 coinage, as examples are found in English from the early 19th Century, but it gained widespread currency only during the war, and the heavily anglicised form the tooter the sweeter (“the sooner the better”) is certainly a WW1 phrase.
Another word which may have been borrowed from French is skive, first used as a military slang term during the war before passing into general usage. The etymology of skive is uncertain, but it may have derived from French esquiver (“to escape, avoid”) – if so, the word would be the most prominent addition to English from French resulting from WW1.
After the introduction of conscription in 1916, the distinction between soldiers and civilians became less clear, and vocabulary passed readily from one group to the other. This is the case with a number of words borrowed from Indian languages by the British military in the 19th Century, perhaps the most well-known of which is Blighty. The Urdu words vilayat (“inhabited country”, specifically Europe or Britain) and vilayati (“foreign”, or “British, English, European”) were borrowed by the British in the 19th Century. Both are still used in South Asian English. But it was the regional variant bilayati – rendered as Blighty in English and meaning “Britain, England, home” – which really took off in Britain. Although it was first used during the Boer war, it was not until WW1 that Blighty spread widely and developed new meanings. A blighty wound was a wound sufficiently serious to merit being sent home, and one might also be hit by a blighty bullet inflicting such a wound. Similarly, cushy (“easy, comfortable”) was borrowed from Urdu kusi in the 19th Century, but spread to civilian use only in WW1.
For an army that started the war knowing only of ground warfare, the development of aerial warfare must have made a deep impression – it certainly gave rise to new vocabulary. Zeppelins – used for passenger transport since the late 19th Century but first used for reconnaissance and bombing in WW1 – were soon called by the colloquial, and catchier, word Zepp. Their distinctive appearance in the sky also gave rise to the colourful phrase Zepps in a cloud – “sausage and mash”.
Other WW1 phrases
The OED is running a special set of appeals for WW1 words, including Zepps/Zeppelins in a cloud and streetcar.
Can you help find earlier evidence for these and other words, perhaps in use in personal letters or diaries? We will seek to verify any promising evidence, and if genuine it will appear in the OED in due course.