Words from WWI

Today marks one century since the start of World War I. It was the first time the world had seen a truly global conflict, with soldiers from six different continents involved. So when these men from various countries and walks of life mixed, they added in various dialect, slang, foreign and altogether new words to their conversations. There are many words we still use today that were brought back from the trenches when the war was over.

One such word is binge. We tend to think of it as a fairly modern phenomenon, especially with regard to binge drinking. But in fact, binge was first used to mean a bout of heavy drinking in 1854. It was originally a Northern dialect word meaning ‘soak’ that became more widespread when Brits from all over the country mixed during WWI and then it began to refer to excessive eating as well as drinking.

As for a slang word that was popularised by the war, how about chum? It could have originally been a slang term for a thief’s accomplice or a colloquial university word for ‘roommate’, short for ‘chambermate’, but during the war it became a common word for ‘friend’.

One word I would never have considered to be a loan word is Blighty itself, meaning ‘Britain’. The original word was the Arabic wilayat, which meant ‘dominion, district’. From there, came the Urdu word bilayati, which was used to refer to any foreign European. British troops posted to India were often referred to in this way so they eventually adopted Blighty as their own.

Finally, a new word that was propagated by WWI and is a particular favourite of mine is bumf. It’s a contraction of bum fodder and initially meant ‘toilet paper’ but it was soon applied to any communication from headquarters.


What did Caxton do for us?

As promised in last week’s post, I’ve been following in the footsteps of the Crystals and have had a go at some English language tourism. I’ve been looking for William Caxton and his printing press, which brings us to the question: what did Caxton ever do for us?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaxton was born in Kent in around 1422. At 16 years old, he moved to London to set himself up as a merchant and he later moved to Bruges and became a thriving businessman. He frequently travelled around continental Europe, including trips to Cologne where he was introduced to the printing press. Soon after, he set up his own printing presses, first in Bruges and later in London in 1476. He is thought to be the first person to establish a printing press in Britain and the first English printer and retailer of printed books. Caxton’s own translation of ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye’ was also the first book ever to be printed in English.

Aside from being a big name in translation at that time, Caxton’s work had a huge impact on the English language. Before Caxton, people just wrote down words however they sounded to the writer. Given the range of accents and dialects around at the time, it made for a very messy language with lots of comprehension problems. Well Caxton put an end to that. He modernised the spelling system; he removed the Old English letters (like eth and thorn, which we saw in ye), he added punctuation and his spelling preferences became the ones we often still use today.

To give a few specific examples, ever wondered why ghost has a h? It’s because Caxton’s staff were mostly from abroad and didn’t know English well; the Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest has a h so they figured the English word should too. Similarly, the extra u in guess is often attributed to Caxton.Location of Caxton's printing press

The word affair, meaning ‘something one has to do’, first entered English in around 1300 from the French infinitive phrase à faire ‘to do’. But it was originally only a Northern word that was usually spelt afere. It was Caxton who brought it into general use and gave it a French spelling.

So back to English language tourism. The only statue of Caxton in London that we know of is outside the Victoria and Albert museum and David Crystal suspects that the very location of Caxton’s original printing press is a triangular patch of tarmac in front of Westminster Abbey. And here are my photos!


Linguistics and English Language Celebrations

It’s been a while since Word Stories’ last post but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been linguisticking. In fact, last week I returned to my old university haunts to celebrate the linguistics and English language department’s 40th birthday. Alumni and current staff were invited to a two day event full of talks (very interesting), academics performing in a rock band (bizarre) and two buffets with free wine (whoop!).

Part of the event was a guest lecture by David and Hilary Crystal about ‘How to be an English language tourist’. The idea behind it was that history buffs can visit museums and castles, geography fans can go to volcanoes or glaciers but where do us English language nerds go? The location of the first printing press, that’s where. And the first known example of an English word, written on a deer bone. And the fifty or so other places the Crystals visited during their bout of language tourism.

Anyway, I bought the book and got a photo and in the future, I’ll be taking Word Stories on a few more language adventures by visiting some of the places David and Hilary recommend and, of course, providing a dash of etymology to go with it.

Printer’s Devil

I stumbled across a fantastic word at work that I have to share. It’s devilling.

We also know the noun devil meaning ‘demon’ and that came from the Old English deofol ‘evil spirit’, which originated in Late Latin diabolus, also the source of diabolical (c. 1500).

But the form devilling is altogether more interesting, because in the Scottish law system, devilling refers to the process trainees must go through to become barristers – the equivalent to the English pupillage system. And this makes it even better: the trainee barrister’s mentor is aptly named a devil master.

It seems that the idea came from an earlier phrase the printer’s devil, who was a young apprentice or errand-boy in a printing office and, through the ‘apprentice’ meaning, it came into a law context. So why was a printing office errand-boy a devil?

There are a number of theories out there. Firstly, it could be because the boy would often be covered in ink. Black being a colour associated with the dark arts, devil was deemed an appropriate nick-name.

Another theory suggests that William Caxton, the first English printer and publisher, had an assistant named ‘Deville’ which evolved into devil over time and came to refer to all printers’ assistants.

One potential explanation is that old or broken type was thrown into what was then termed a hellbox. The printer’s devil would be charged with the task of throwing the hellbox’s contents into the furnace for recasting.

A fourth and rather fanciful suggestion is that Johann Gutenberg’s business partner, Johann Fust, sold a number of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French King Louis XI under the pretence that they were hand-written manuscripts. When the king and his officials noticed that the manuscripts were identical, they arrested Fust for witchcraft – the red ink supposedly being blood. He was later freed when the truth came out but many continued to associate printing with devilry and regarded it with suspicion, hence a rather dubious step to the term printer’s devil.

However, my favourite theory by far is that there is a devil who haunts scribes and printing houses called Titivillus. This mischievous demon introduces errors into text and misspells words. He also, in church services, collects idle chat and mispronounced or mumbled words of service to take to Hell. Eventually, the apprentice became s suitable source of blame to replace Titivillus and he was referred to as the printer’s devil instead.

Incidentally, an article on Wikipedia also remarks that ‘Marc Drogin noted in his instructional manual Medieval Calligraphy: Its history and technique (1980) “for the past half-century every edition of The Oxford English Dictionary has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus.”’

Well, as I now work in a publishing house, I can say with certainty that the printer’s devil is a reality and he’s been very busy with my articles. I think that’s the only possible explanation.