10 Military Words & Phrases from World War One

The slang used by men in the First World War became popular and fashionable in wartime Britain, with a number of words and phrases remaining in the English language.

Prior to the Great War, slang had mostly remained within the army but, during the war, it transferred from soldiers to civilians.

Table 1: 10 Military words and phrases
Word/Phrase Description
Having a Chat
  • A commonplace expression today that owes its origin to that most pernicious of insects, the louse.
  • Body lice were endemic in the trenches, and they inhabited the seams and pleats of clothing where they bred in huge numbers, causing skin rashes and itching.
  • The expression is often ascribed to the Hindi word for a parasite, ‘chatt’, but is more possibly from an earlier medieval English word for idle gossip, ‘chateren’.
  • Soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars certainly referred to lice as ‘chats’.
  • During the Great War it was common to see small groups sitting around and talking as they used their fingernails, or a candle, to kill the lice.
  • Such groups were described as men who were ‘chatting’.
Plonk
  • The now, almost, universal word for a bottle of wine.
  • The British soldier has traditionally failed since time immemorial to master the pronunciation of even the simplest foreign words, and it is merely a corruption of the French ‘vin blanc’.
Pillbox
  • Prior to the war some small defensive military fortifications had been constructed, generally referred to as blockhouses.
  • Mostly these were made of heavy timber – many were constructed during the Boer War.
  • However, the term was only widely adopted into English during the latter part of the Great War because of the huge numbers of concrete bunkers constructed by the Germans across the flooded Flanders battlefields.
  • They were called pillboxes due to their similarity to the small receptacles used by civilians for carrying medication.
Blighty
  • The origin of this now very British word is shrouded in mystery.
  • It may have come from the Arabic ‘beladi’, meaning ‘my own country’, or the Hindi word ‘bilaik’, referring to a foreign place or country.
  • For the Tommies, it meant only one thing: home.
  • The best possible way to get there was to sustain a wound serious enough to require hospitalisation in England, which was enviously termed ‘a Blighty one’.
Third Light
  • A superstition that it was bad luck to light a third cigarette from the same match.
  • This was actually based on sound experience: it took a German sniper about five seconds at night to see, aim and fire at a light source, and a flaring match was clearly visible on a dark night from well over 500 yards.
  • Five seconds was also about the time it took for the third man to light up.
Tank
  • The first modern armoured fighting vehicles were produced in great secrecy by Fosters of Lincoln.
  • To prevent any hint of their purpose being discovered by German spies, workers were told they were mobile water tanks.
  • Some were even clearly marked in Cyrillic ‘Water tanks for Russia’.
  • The ruse certainly worked, because their first use on the Somme on 15 September 1916 was a complete surprise to the Germans.
Sniper
  • Prior to the First World War, armies had employed specialist marksmen known as ‘sharpshooters’, but when war broke out the Germans fielded thousands of highly trained riflemen, usually equipped with telescopic-sighted rifles.
  • British officers referred to them as ‘snipers’, which harked back to the army in India in the late 18th century when officers would go bird hunting in the hills – the tiny Snipe being one of the hardest of targets to hit.
  • From 1914 the word was widely adopted by the British press, and it has since become universal.
  • Sniping can now also refer to sharp or snide remarks made about another person.
Over the Top
  • An example of an expression that has seen a resurgence, although now with a very different meaning.
  • Originally it referred to the physical act of launching an attack by climbing over the sandbag parapet in front of a trench – literally by going over the top.
  • It thus became synonymous with setting off on any highly dangerous venture, usually with a slim chance of survival.
  • It mostly died out after the war but in recent years has been revived, albeit now meaning to embark on a course of action or to make a remark that is either excessive or unnecessary.
Shrapnel
  • Often used today as a reference to the annoying, and all-but-worthless small change that accumulates in one’s pockets or purse.
  • It is possibly the most incorrectly used word from the war, as it is invariably misapplied to describe the lethal flying splinters from high-explosive shells.
  • In fact, it refers to the lead balls launched from airburst shells (a little like airborne shotgun cartridges) invented by Lt Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784.
Bumf
  • Printed paper that is produced in huge quantities for no discernable reason, and apparently has no information value.
  • The junk mail we all receive on a daily basis is a prime example.
  • It is derived from the army term ‘bum-fodder’ – paper that has only one possible practical use.
  • It is originally from prewar schoolboy slang then appropriated by the soldiers to refer to excessive paperwork.
  • It generally referred to the endless streams of army orders that were issued from headquarters.

Reference

Pegler, M. (2014) Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War. London: Osprey Publishing.

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