New Zealand soldiers returned from World War 1 with a new vocabulary – and many of the words are commonly used by Kiwis today, writes Professor Glyn Harper

Have you had a day where you were feeling lousy or washed out; maybe after a night of binge drinking? And as you head off to work feeling fed up did you hope there would not be too much bumf to deal with? Were you hoping for a cushy day, one in which you would not draw the crabs. If you did, it is a legacy from World War 1.

All of the highlighted words have entered our regular repertoire as a result of the soldiers’ experience in the trenches of the Great War. While we still remember World War I with our ANZAC commemorations, our regular use of terms and phrases coined by soldiers shows the unacknowledged imprint from the war.

Lousy referred to being infected with lice, a soldiers’ constant companion during the war. A wash out originally referred to an officer who had failed to pass his commissioning course and was posted back to his unit. It soon came to signify failure in general.

Binge, originally a Lancashire term, described an overindulgence of alcohol. Fed up emerged as a widespread feeling of discontent. A digger dictionary records its meaning simply as ‘disgusted and weary’. Bumf was a term applied to the paperwork that originated from higher headquarters. There was a lot of it and bumf was shortened from bum fodder – slang for toilet paper. Cushy is one of the words originating from Britain’s Indian Army. In Hindu, Kushi means pleasure but the word has morphed to its broader meaning of being undemanding and easy. In digger speak, crabs were artillery shells and to ‘draw the crabs’ was to attract enemy artillery fire. It was the last thing a soldier wanted to do.

Historians have tended to ignore the importance of language to soldiers on active service.Yet, it was part of what defined them as a close knit primary group. Being able to ‘sling the bat’ (speak the language) was an essential part of a soldier’s life. As the French writer Henri Barbusse noted, the language of the French Army in World War 1, a mixture of workplace and barrack slang, patois and newly coined words ‘binds us like a sauce, to the compact mass of men … who have emptied France to concentrate in the North-East’.

Many words and terms coined by the soldiers soon spread widely. Some, like the words in the opening paragraph, remain in common use today. A small sample includes:

Air pocket – a flying term indicating thin air

Back chat – to answer back, usually with impertinence

Bunk – to abscond

Ding bat – a simpleton or halfwit. During the war it also referred to officers’ batmen (servant)

Doolally – madness, from the hospital at Deolali, near Bombay

Go to the pack – deteriorate

Gutzer – a disappointment or misfortune usually, expressed as ‘to come a gutzer’. A ‘gutzer straight or flush’ in a digger speak was a poker straight or flush with one crucial card missing.

Hard word – an outrageous demand

In the gun – under disfavour

Pong – smell, more usually stink

Sit on the tail – staying close. Originally a flying term indicating the intent to fly slightly above and behind an enemy aeroplane.

Swipe – to steal, originally a Canadian term

Wind up – fear, or being frightened

…and there are many more.

In his highly acclaimed book The Great War and Modern History, published in 1975, Paul Fussell reminded readers that ‘the diction of war resides everywhere just below the surface of modern experience’. Fussell noted words such as breakthrough, bombard, barrage, crummy, sector and trench are in frequent use without any awareness by the people speaking them that these terms originated from World War 1.

Many words used by our World War 1 soldiers were eventually discarded or forgotten. It was a natural process but it is also regrettable as much colour, meaning and sheer creativity was lost. Often words and terms revealed our soldiers’ humour too. This can be seen in the samples below:

Concrete macaroon – the standard army biscuit baked so hard that it could break teeth when eaten

Duck’s breakfast – a drink of water and a wash. That is, no breakfast at all. The diggers’ dictionary records that this was a ‘frequent repast in the front line’.

FFF – feeling completely miserable. One meaning was ‘forlorn, famished and far from home’. There are some more colourful versions of its meaning.

Middlesex officer – a pompous, foppish officer – therefore a member of the Middle Sex

The First World War is renowned for the poetry it produced from the trenches. However, the enduring linguistic legacy it produced, much of it originating from the ordinary soldier, is not so well-known. The distinguished Australian historian Professor Sir Ernest Scott wrote in 1936 that the impacts of the First World War would still be evident in one hundred years. Professor Scott was right. The effect of the First World War on how we speak today is just one of its many enduring legacies.

Professor of War Studies Glyn Harper (QSM) of Massey University is a prominent NZ historian who specialises in the military history of the 20th century. He has published several books on New Zealand's...

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