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"Trench Talk": A Compelling Look at the Words of WWI

Any news event brings new terms and phrases to life while reinvigorating old ones. Look how the recent Presidential election spread malarkey, binders full of women, and bayonets across headlines and tweets. Forevermore, those words will jog the memory of anyone who was paying attention to the 2012 election.

The bigger the event, the bigger the linguistic impact. Case in point, World War I had an enormous influence on language, though that hasn't always been the perception. In the preface to their engaging book, Trench Talk: Words of the First World War, Peter Doyle and Julian Walker write, "One of the enduring myths of the first world war is that the experience of the trenches was not talked about." This book is a powerful debunking of that myth and a treasure for word-lovers. It's one of the most enjoyable word books I've read in a while.

Trench Talk strikes a difficult balance — always tricky in word books — between an overall narrative and treatment of individual words. In various chapters, introductory passages set the table for a buffet of terms, many of which are handsomely illustrated. The reproduction of posters, letters, and other documents from WWI are helpful in demonstrating how terms were used and giving the flavor of the times. This is a beautiful book that creates an effortless, pleasing reading experience that's in total contrast to the actual conflict it discusses, which, though it seems incomprehensible, killed 14 million people.

If, as the American Dialect Society picks a word of the year, a linguistic society were to pick a word of the war, it would have to be trench, a word that rose to huge prominence during this period. Trench fever and trench foot were suffered by soldiers, who used trench knives and trench clubs as weapons. These days, in the trenches is such a common term for any kind of hands-on experience — I've used it to describe working at a summer camp and grading student papers — that it's startling to be reminded of the realities of trench warfare. However, a joking definition published in a trench magazine shows that even in the most harrowing of circumstances, humor had a place: "TRENCH – So called from the trenchant remarks from those inhabiting them."

Despite the seemingly narrow focus of the subject matter, there's something for every type of word-lover in Trench Talk. Unexpectedly, this book enriched my knowledge of three of my favorite types of words: nonsense synonyms, TV words, and indefinite words. I had never heard of the term eye-wash, which the OED defines as "Something that is intended to obscure or conceal actual facts or motives; humbug, blarney; nonsense." That term dates from the 1880's but gained currency during WWI. I never knew old man — a term used on Battlestar Galactica — was a real-word military term, but I learned that it refers to senior officers in real life as well as Commander Adama in space. I had never heard of hooza-ma-kloo: a wonderful Canadian word for a doohickey. Doyle and Walker write, "There was a wide range of words to describe something whose name you had forgotten, particularly in a war characterized by the development of military technology," giving me a new appreciation for words like thingumyjig and hickeymadoodle.

Euphemisms abounded during WWI. I write the Evasive Maneuvers column on euphemisms, and I could probably squeeze a whole column out of Trench Talk. We may long for the bygone days when everyone spoke plainly and without obfuscation, but the huge amount of WWI euphemisms show that people — especially people discussing the death and destruction of war — have long needed soft, pillow-like words to cushion against the harshness of reality. Euphs included the accessory (cyanide gas), souveniring (looting), and chats — which weren't friendly talks, but pesky lice. There's a whole chapter on officialese, a language which "communicated nothing by way of information, but assured the reader that events were proceeding, being observed, and to some extent managed." In other words, officialese was a lot of eye-wash.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how recent lexical developments are echoed by words and terms that are almost 100 years old. For example, German sausage was redubbed Dunmow sausage, setting a precedent for liberty cabbage and freedom fries. DORA — the Defense of the Realm Act — gave the British government powers reminiscent of the Patriot Act. Just as high school seniors suffer from senioritis, soldiers suffered from trenchitis, which combined frustration, stress, and longing for home. The term Mespot — used disparagingly for the campaign in the area that would become Iraq — is a harbinger of Jon Stewart's Mess-O-Potamia coinage. Times change, but the English language keeps pulling similar rabbits out of its hat.

I think any word-lover would enjoy this book. If you're a history buff too, it's a must-have. It expertly balances context and trivia, history and lexicon, gravitas and humor. Doyle and Walker make a powerful case that perhaps "the destructivity of the war had to be balanced by creativity in language." That's hardly a balance, but it is fascinating.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 11th 2013, 8:23 PM
Comment by: James S.
When my mother went looking for something misplaced she would say
"Shell the Woods". On that order we started looking too.
Monday February 11th 2013, 10:54 PM
Comment by: Noel B.
In Australia, German sausage became Belgian, & German Shepherd dogs became Alsatians.
Tuesday February 12th 2013, 4:32 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I always wondered how Bismarck North Dakota survived I may have misspelled it!

Didn't sauerkraut undergo a similar change?

And when did 'trenchmouth' come into use. That's what they told me I had after eating too many tangerines around Christmas.

It's only recently that I realize that it's a combination allergy and/or sensitivity to Vitamin C or elements there of.

I've been told it's impossible to be allergic to that. I'd like to have a doctor say that when I cannot eat because of the rash in my mouth!

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