Lest we forget the lost lingo of First World War

THEY are the words and phrases that survived the mud and ­bullets of the First World War.

Scottish soldiers with bayonets fixed on the Western Front in 1915 prepare to go over the top. Picture: Getty
Scottish soldiers with bayonets fixed on the Western Front in 1915 prepare to go over the top. Picture: Getty

To doss down, smoke a fag and get rid of a dud are just some of the terms which sprang to life in the killing fields of the Western Front.

Now a new book published by the British Library sheds light on the lost lingo of British soldiers, as well as illustrating those parts of the language in use today but first coined amid the horrors of trench warfare.

Some phrases have wormed their way into contemporary usage while others have a fallen by the wayside such as seam squirrel, a term for the lice that teemed in many a soldier’s uniform on the Western Front and rat poison, an affectionate term among the squaddies for their cheese rations.

Smoking shag, drinking tot and nibbling on some rat poison are among the strange terms and phrases they used on the front line and now revisited in the new book.

Doggo and crump (a German shell) have long since disappeared from common use.

But having a doss, getting rid of a dud or asking for a fag would be familiar to many 
people today.

The distinct language that emerged was first written up in 1918 by Lorenzo Napoleon Smith and is introduced by Professor Julie Coleman from the University of Leicester’s School of ­English.

Prof Coleman said: “The language of the trenches was a ­fascinating topic even while the war was under way. Newspapers and recruiting agencies published glossaries of trench slang as a way of bridging the gulf between civilians and those serving on the front line.

“Terms like fireworks [aerial bombardment], tin hat [helmet] and old soldier [a soldier who evades danger] humanise the experience of war by revealing the humour that made unthinkable conditions bearable.

“Some of the words and phrases listed in these glossaries have become unremarkable features of everyday language: now anyone can put the wind up someone, do something in an over-the-top way or use a ­joystick.”

The Lingo of No Man’s Land is a reissue of a dictionary originally compiled by the Canadian soldier at the end of the 1914-18 war.

The book shows how soldiers sent to the front brought dialects together, creating a language unique to wartime western Europe.

Between skirmishes, soldiers would be smoking shag, a low-quality tobacco, while a gap in bombardments would be doggo, or quiet enough, to sleep.

It was common for soldiers to rid their uniforms of seam-squirrels, the lice also known as trouser rabbits, cooties and shiny lizards, that thrived in grim conditions of the trenches.

When it came to action on the front line, “flying pigs” meant bad news. The term was a nickname for heavy mortars used in the trenches, while machine guns were known as Emma Gees.

The book is available online.