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‘Slanguage’ - The voice of the British Pongo, Tommy or Squaddie  

The English language, that globally recognised voice of communication is but a rich tapestry of so many others. Indeed, the very word English or England hails from the ancient language of the Angles who landed on our shores from what is now northern Germany, claiming it to be theirs as land of the Angles or as they would say Engla land.

They obviously brought their own language, what is referred to now as Proto-Germanic which mixed with the existing tongues of the Celts and Britons who were already living here, and they had been subjected to Latin having been conquered by Emperor Claudius’ Roman Legions.

So, as you can see the base ancient language gradually became over laid with subsequent others as various tribes, cults and peoples arrived on our shores. The Proto-Brittonic language of the Celts mixed with Latin of the Romans which then had the Proto-Germanic influence of the Angles and Saxons.

Later another layer would be added, French as William of Normandy seized the crown from the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. It is this multi-faceted construct of English that gives us today such a wonderfully descriptive language with so many nouns (from the Latin nomen, meaning name) and verbs (again Latin meaning word) to describe what we see, watch, view, observe, sight, picture or indeed glimpse.   

Well, as you can imagine with such a depth to a language it will spurn slang and alternative meanings never more so than within the ranks of the military. Interestingly as French came to the fore following the Norman conquest of 1066, much of the ancient Anglo-Saxon language was pushed aside and deemed a little vulgar.

The sounds of those words emanating from the Germanic and Norse languages producing quite a guttural sound such as ‘ugh’. Consequently, the four-letter expletives we are all so familiar with tend to be short and pithy with an emphasis on the vowel contained within; I’ll leave it to you to conjure up those words! 

Even today a French derived word will convey a finer, perhaps more refined sense or meaning. Take for instance, cart. It comes from Old English (Old Norse to be precise part of Proto-Germanic) then compare with the word carriage from Northern France. You’ll seldom read ‘Carts at midnight’ on a party invitation.

The human race has been fighting with each other for as long as it’s been conversing bringing with it its own distinctive slang, use and abuse of language and symbolism. Words and phrases that have entered the lexicon of the English Language down through the centuries of conflict are mostly peculiar to either the development of weaponry at that juncture in time or for a particular war.

Yes, the Royal Navy is responsible for much of the military phraseology that peppers in our everyday conversation with letting the cat out the bag, being at logger heads, and asking people to pipe down, to name but three.

However, these tended to be actions and activities that took place within the confines of Britain’s ‘wooden walls’ whereas the British Army soaked up the language and culture of wherever it was stationed and of course brought it home to Blighty – which in itself was a military slang word from the trenches on the Western Front ‘He copped a blighty last night’ meaning someone had been severely wounded enough to require evacuation back to Britain.

I mentioned earlier Latin and the Roman conquest of Britain; the word decimate is straight out of the Roman Army book of discipline and quite unpleasant given its origins. Today’s dictionaries will say to cut drastically or remove a large proportion of; however, taken literally it means to reduce by 10%, decem being Latin for ten. Had a Roman legion been found to have acted with cowardice or mutinous then the legionaries would be ordered to select 10% of their numbers who they would then club to death.

Let’s time travel from Roman times up through the centuries to the present, stopping off at points to get a flavour of what this country’s soldiers have introduced in their own inimitable style to the British vocabulary.     

Next up, the medieval times. Every schoolchild will tell you, when laying siege to a defended castle one way to get in was to dig underneath the walls and towers, or to undermine them, and cause them to collapse. They would be sapping the strength of the structure and the troops that did this, albeit later on in the 17th Century, were referred to as Sappes taken from the French language from which the present-day name for a soldier in the Royal Engineers is derived – Sapper.

If you are going to ‘keep it under your hat’ today it means to hide away or perhaps keep it secret – yet for the bowmen at Agincourt and Crecy it was an order to place their bow strings under their hats to keep them dry and in optimal condition.

Perhaps my favourite is the ‘Cock-up’. Now you would be forgiven for thinking that it might have something to do with a gentleman’s appendage or possibly a dalliance resulting in unwarranted consequences.

No, in fact it is simply the act of an arrow loosed from a bow with the cock feather uppermost. If you picture an arrow from a rear profile there are three feathered flights: one dorsal flight, known as the cock feather, and two ventral flights, the hen feathers, much like the fins on a shark. The arrow needs to be loaded with the cock feather at 90˚which allows the other two hen feathers to pass the bow as the arrow is loosed.

However, if the cock feather is up right, one of the two hen feathers will brush the bow as it passes and sending the arrow off course – as you will appreciate being a Fletcher by name (maker of arrow flights) we know all about such matters.

Moving on into the 16th and 17th centuries, the proliferation of firearms was the genesis of a whole new raft of now familiar aphorisms. With flintlocks and muskets came such sayings as ‘hang fire’; today - to wait or delay but, to a redcoat in the Duke of Marlborough’s Army when the priming powder or initiating charge in the pan did not ignite the main charge causing the weapon to fail. In fact, it would also have been just a ‘flash in the pan’.

Once again, we have that word cock being referred to; this time in ‘Going off half-cocked’. Having loaded your musket with its charge of gunpowder, ball and rammed it home with wadding, the musketeer would cock his weapon by drawing back the hammer that held the piece of flint. There were effectively two stages or pressures when cocking the musket.

First pressure was a rudimentary form of safety catch which allowed the soldier to carry their weapon ready for action. They would then be able to quickly draw the hammer back and fire; however, on occasions if they forgot to do that the weapon would have gone off half-cocked meaning it didn’t discharge.

Moving on a century or so; as the British Empire expanded and reached into different parts of the globe, its soldiers found themselves absorbing the rich veins of culture wherever they were stationed. None more evident than those dispatched to what was considered the jewel in the British Empire – India.

Senior officers and high-ranking officials on passage to and from India would always ensure their cabins were on the port side of the ship going out and starboard coming home to avoid the intense heat of the sun. It was truncated to Port Out Starboard Home or more simply POSH.

Many Indian phrases and words entered every day speak from soldiers returning from duty much of which is still used today. Pukka, to be authentic or genuine is from the Hindi and Urdu word pakkã that translates into solid.

A modern British soldier will be quite familiar with the term getting their dhobi done or using dhobi dust meaning laundering their uniforms or using washing powder. Again, it comes from the days of the British Raj with dhobi being derived from the Hindi word dhobĩ to wash.

There are far too many words originating from this era for me to list here, but perhaps one so commonly associated with the British Army is khaki. It served as the word used to describe the light brown/ochre base colour, of the British Army’s combat clothing from the Boer War right through to the days of National Service in the 1950s and 60s. It too was a Hindi/Urdu word meaning of dust colour.

During their postings to India many soldiers would fall victim to fever. It would result in them becoming delirious and being sent to a sanatorium. One of the more notable establishments being in the town of Deolali hence the phrase ‘going doolally’.

The First World War brought about conflict on an industrial scale and spurned a whole new genre of language among the ranks. Now fighting in their khaki uniforms, the British Tommys’ language altered to reflect the conditions. ‘Giving it the whole nine yards’ stems from the length of the ammunition belt that fed the Vickers machine gun. So, for a gunner to give it the whole nine yards meant they just kept firing until they were out of ammo.

‘Clobber’ was trench lingo for clothing and to be a ‘Basket case’ meant you had been wounded so badly you could be carried off in a basket and, of course, ‘No man’s land’ – needs no explanation. The crates that carried the then new revolutionary and ultra-secret British Army weapons across to the Western Front were labelled ‘tanks’ as a tank was the only conceivable item of comparable size.

The English language is festooned with words and phraseology courtesy of this country’s soldiers. Some descriptive, others informative and a few undeniably unpleasant, but all the more richer for it. Time for me to ‘pop smoke’…