Topic: Soldier Slang
Slang of the Great War
The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 30 November 1929
A comprehensive list of the unique words and phrases coined and used during the Greta War would require a volume; and what an interesting book it would be. Some of them—surprisingly few—have become part and parcel of everyday language; the majority, however, are quickly passing into oblivion, being only remembered when a few old comrades foregather at the anniversary of the armistice or the celebration of ANZAC and other memorable days.
Much of the war-time slang was inspired by an instinct for self-protection against the terrible assaults of reality. As one writer expressed it: "To mitigate his (the soldier's) often atrocious sufferings, to lessen his sense of the perils surrounding him at all times and in all places, he was at pains to become familiar, indeed cheeky, with them all; and, like Beaumarchais' Fiargo, "make haste to laugh lest he be compelled to weep." Thus "what the soldiers said in the war" is evidence of many things. It is evidence of his sufferings, and of the amazing powers of adaptation which the human mind can summon to the breach of all ordinary habit, outlook and experience. But above all, it is evidence of the innate humor of the typical Digger and Tommy.
What humorous and suggestive appellations he coined for food. Thus poached eggs on toast were dubbed, "Adam and Eve on a raft"; fried eggs and bacon were "Two dots and a dash": sausages were "barkers"; milk became "cow juice" and "Dooley"; cheese was "cough and sneeze"; a bun was a "wad"; whilst a thick slice of bread became a "doorstep." Whilst butter was invariably "grease," salt became dignified as "Lot's wife"; gravy was "gippa"; Potatoes were of course "murphies" and "spuds," and also "totties"; and onions were "violets." A favourite estaminet dish, "Pomme de terre frites," was promptly christened "Bombardier Fritz"; porridge was invariably "burgoo"; and food generally was "chuck," "rooti" and "toke."
For drink and its intoxicating effects the soldier had a varied vocabulary. Beer was "suds," "stagger juice," "pig's ear" and "berai," and a glass of beer was a "blob." To be drunk was to be "blotto," "canned" or "cut"; any one very drunk was "blindo"; whilst being merely tipsy was to be "Bosky." When one set out on a carouse he was said "to go on the batter," or "on the binge"; and "canteen medals" was the term applied to drippings of beer on a tunic. Rum for some undiscovered reason was "scoach," also "red eye."
Originality was displayed in the nomenclature of enemy shells. These in general were dubbed "iron rations," the title originally applied to the tin rations supplied to the troops. Individual enemy shells were known by such distinctive names as "Asiatic Annie," "Whistling Percy," "Pip Squeak," "Jack Johnson," "Wooly Bear," "Minnie," "Tube Train," "Black Maria," "Whizz bang" and "Coal Box." Anti-aircraft shell were invariably "Archirs." Some famous guns were "Big Bertha," "Grandmother," "Lazy Eliza," "Coughing Clara," and "Billy Wells."
As might be expected many grimly ironical phrases were coined to describe wounds and death. A bad head wound was dubbed "a cushy one on the bake"; a nasty wound was "a dull thud" or "a loud one"; to be hit by a bullet was "to stop one," and to feel ill was to "feel like death warmed up." Being taken to undergo an operation was "to go to the pictures"; an anesthetic was a "dope"; to be in hospital was to be "in dock." An expectation of inevitable death was expressed by "I s'pose I'll be a land owner," and the cemetery was known as "the rest camp." The war zone was often referred to as "the shooting gallery," and the soldier's bayonet was described as a "toothpick," a "toasting fork," a "winkle-pin" and "a persuader." His identity disk was his "cold meat ticket," and his clasp knife a "cat stabber." The cheaper cigarettes supplied to the troops were known as "yellow perils" and "canteen stinkers," while Woodbines were "coffin nails," and the butt of a cigarette was a "blink."
Divisional orders were irreverently dubbed "Comic Cuts" and flying was known as the "comic business."
The soldier delighted in transforming the alliterative and distinguished names of regiments and decorations into unflattering titles. Thus the A.S.C. became "Ally Sloper's Cavalry," the Durham Light Infantry were the "Dirty Little Imps," the D.S.O. was "Dirty Shirt On," the A.O.C. were known as "All Old Crooks" and the R.A.M.C. as the "Linseed lancers."
One important class of slang words naturally sprang from the fighting men's attempt to pronounce and adapt French words and phrases. Thus "katsoo" preserved somewhat the French pronunciation of quatre sous, while allez toute de suite became "alley toot sweet." "Sanferian," or "snaffer," contained all the elements of cela ne faire rien. "Comprey?" for comprenez? Was very popular, as also were "bon," or "Bong," "fashy" (fache) and "mongee." Ypres became "Wipers" and "Eepray." "Balloo" was as near as he could get to Bailleul.
That most familiar of war words "Boche" has an interesting pre-war history. Originally it had nothing to do with the German, and it was not so applied until after the war of 1870. It originally signified "a bad lot." Zola, in "L'Assommoir," called the Alsatian concierges "les boches"; later Germans were described as Alboches (Allemend-boche), and then the al was dropped. Boche, in France, became the parent of such words as bochiser, to Germanise, bochonnie, Germany, and bochonnerie, German villainy.
Two slang words which apparently could mean anything whatever were "oojar" and "gadget." The latter was applied to almost every device or appliance used by soldiers and airmen, and when they were at a loss for a word to express their feelings about a circumstance. Person or thing they invariably described it as an (adjective to oojar or oojiboo).