At precisely one minute past midnight on August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany. This declaration meant all members of the British Empire, including Canada, were also at war.
The “War to End all Wars” wasn‘t expected to last long. In actuality, it dragged on for four blood-soaked years.
“The Great War,” like wars before and since, spawned colourful slang, some of which is still around today. Some, however, has left the world of slang and entered standard English.
Let’s look at some First World War slang.
A Saturday-night soldier (1917) was a volunteer, not a career military man. In 1916, PBI meant, “poor bloody infantrymen.” By 1916, British troops were calling a hand-grenade, a pineapple.
We still hear, “That’ll be the day,” a quip that arose in the First World War. Apparently, Prussian officers believed German victory was just around the corner. So, while relaxing in their officers’ quarters, they routinely drank toasts to the “Day of Victory” — der Tag. When the British heard of this, they began to shout across no man’s land, “That’ll be the day!”
Over the top was British Army slang for climbing out of a trench to make an attack. But, going over the top landed soldiers smack into no man’s land, the area separating the opposing trenches.
No man’s land didn’t originate during the war. Centuries old, it wasn’t at first war-related. Rather, it described another kind of death — the place of execution outside London’s walls. Today, that first meaning is long-forgotten. No man’s land evokes only a war-field.
Blighty (England; home) evolved from bilayati, Urdu for “foreign.” It began as Indian Army slang for “British troops in India.” Cushy is from the Hindi khush (pleasure). Soldiers referred to cushy jobs, or, cushy billets.
Several terms are American in origin, even though the U.S. stayed neutral until April 1917. Blooey, gob, bozo, buck private, dog tag and boot camp, all originate with Americans.
Gob (ordinary seaman) is dated to 1915. Boot camp (1916) was a centre where navy and marine recruits received initial training. Blooey described the sound of an explosion. A bozo was a fool, while a buck private was a soldier “bucking” for promotion. Dog tag, now universally used for “identification disc,” was first used by U.S. soldiers.
Soldiers from Down Under (Anzacs) also contributed to First World War slang. Blitheral (very drunk) and blink (cigarette butt) are two examples. Anzac soup was a shell-hole filled with blood and water. A body snatcher was a “stretcher bearer.”
Canadian war slang, all of it undated, includes silent death, the practice of quietly and surreptitiously waiting at night for a German patrol to pass by. Canadian waterproof boots were called larrigans. Cheese became Massey-Harris. French-Canadians gave us cagnat (cagna) meaning, “trench.”
Big Bertha was the nickname for German howitzers that bombed Belgium in 1914. This phrase, still used today in sports, now means, “an impressive serve” in tennis, and a “great kick” in rugby. Oil can (1917) referred to a German mortar bomb. Cock-up (error; screw-up) originated between 1914 and 1918.
The war, itself, gathered a few slangy nicknames. Anzacs called it, The Big Snarl, or, The Big Stoush. Americans called it, The Big Stunt. Worldwide, this conflict was known as “The World War,” called that because it was the first war ever to involve countries from the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, South America and North America.