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Interesting Etymologies 29: World War One

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

"Hello again Word Lovers!" This episode is going to explore some words that come to us from World War One, The Great War

Perhaps a good place to start would be the word War itself. Guerre in French, the mutation of Gu to W is something we have seen before, This from Werra in Frankish which itself comes from Proto Germanic Werz to mean a mixture or a confusion.

Fight: A very old word indeed, feohtan in Old English meaning to combat, especially with weapons. This came from Germanic deriving from a PIE root pek which meant to pluck or comb. Greek pekos fleece or wool, Persian pash is wool and Sanskrit has paksman for eyebrows and hair. It is possibly the idea of pulling roughly, tearing out someone's hair or struggling with knotted hair that gets us to fight. Pek is also considered a potential root of pugnus, Latin for fist.

The substitution of -gh for a hard h was a scribe habit in middle English.

The Great War

World War One saw clumsy transfer of foreign words into English, especially from our French neighbours. "San Fairy Ann", an expression that meant "It doesn't matter" is a poor interpretation of the French expression "ça ne fait rien"

The card game Pontoon is another clumsy transfer of vingt-et-un (21) from French.

Napoo (il n'y a plus) for "there is no more" but the interpretation was "He is no more". So if someone was napooed he was dead.

Toot Sweet (Tout de suite - immediately) was provided a further layer of abstraction by morphing into the expression "The tooter the sweeter" meaning "the sooner the better"

Skive (French esquiver to escape or to avoid) enters the English language to mean to avoid duty or work.

Plonk (derivation of vin blanc white wine) corrupted into Plonk to mean cheap wine.

Blighty - If you lived abroad you would maybe dream or long to return to Blighty (Britain). These seems to emerge from India. In Urdu the word vilayat means inhabited country in Europe or Britain which provided vilayati meaning foreign. An alternative theory provides a root from the Arabic "beladi" meaning "my own country"

Cushy to mean comfortable also comes from Urdu, kusi

Dekko meaning to look also from Hindi.

Chat as a word for talk or conversation comes from the trenches of world war one, reportedly from the Hindi word for a louse or a tic but it could also come from English, the word chateren meaning to gossip.

Tank to mean an armoured mobile artillery unit comes to us from World War One. The name stuck because the units were disguised as water tanks. The original British tanks had "Water tanks for Russia" written on them.

Shrapnel as a word for small pieces of metal that emerge from explosions i snot a German etymology but is in fact a proper noun. The idea of a shell with small lead balls in it was an invention of Lt. Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784.

Bumf/Bumph is another example of trenches slang. The word means useless or tedious printed material, often related to advertising actually comes from the army causal term bumfodder, as in food for the bum, yes toilet paper.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

Further Material

Hope & Glory : The Somme centenary

A Bulldogz documentary of a battlefield tour with Nigel Farage as we learn of the horrors of the Great War and the men who suffered.

Read more in the article "Nothing prepares you for the peace" here or listen to the programme via our podcast or our youtube channel

Readings of the poems recited on Remembrance Day

A summary of the course of World War One

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

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