It’s a hundred years ago today that the First World War ended, and there are memorials taking place around the world to mark this. Many families were affected by the death or serious injuries (mental and physical) of the young men who fought for King and Country. The traditional role of women was also changed by the war as they left their homes to support the war effort, and brought up families single-handed. True, they were expected to meekly return to the kitchen once the men came home, but the genie was out of the bottle, and the vote and greater independence – both socially and in work – followed.
Language was changed too, and phrases coined by the men at the front came into common usage when they returned home. Though with some, their meaning has changed subtly.
Over the top, for example, which referred to the act of scrambling out of the trench and running towards the enemy lines (quite possibly getting killed or injured in the process), now means anything excessive or a bit too much.
Catwalk was the name for the temporary, narrow wooden pathway over the mud (so named because of a cat’s ability to walk along the tops of thin walls), now refers to the strip of stage a model walks along to display the latest fashions.
Some phrases needed a rapid cleaning up to be used in mixed society. In the pink means being well and happy, but for soldiers at the front it had sexual connotations (use your imagination), whether realised or just hopeful.
Likewise bumf, which came to mean paperwork – quite possibly an excess of it – was a contraction of bum-fodder (again, use your imagination – no doubt they were short of loo rolls at the Front).
The soldiers in the First World War had khaki uniforms, unlike the splendidly attired soldiers of previous centuries. It made them less conspicuous and less likely to be picked out by snipers. The word khaki was not a WW1 invention. It comes from the nineteenth century Persian or Urdu word meaning dust.
Many men endured the dreadful conditions bravely, but were no doubt helped by a laconic sense of humour. I will finish today with a marching song from the First World War known as I Don’t Want to Die. I want to go home / I want to go home / I don’t want to go in the trenches no more / Where whizz-bangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar / Take me over the sea / Where the Alleyman can’t get me / Oh my / I don’t want to die / I want to go home. This was sung, of course, whilst marching stoically towards the Front, and in the full knowledge that they, or comrades, might never be going home.