Have you ever wondered why we call bits of bullet and shell shrapnel? Or when and why sausages became known as bangers? And who was Big Bertha and what on earth had she to do with Tommy Atkins? The answers to all these questions lie in the First World War. So many of the words and phrases we use today had their origins there. Some are disputed, of course. If in doubt refer to that fountain of knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Major Shrapnel invented the shell, although his name these days is applied to the horrible, fatal fragments of a shell rather than the shell itself. Big Bertha was the large bore mortar gun that did so much damage to the men in the trenches. It was made at the Krupp works and said by some to be named after Mme Krupp von Bohlen, owner of that industrial empire. I have no idea how big her bottom was but I doubt she would have been flattered by the name.
Tommy Atkins refers to the common British soldier. Sometimes shortened to just Tommy it became popular in the First World War but its use dates from much further back. The actual origin is debatable. A letter from Jamaica in 1743 referring to a mutiny among the troops says “except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly”. However the popular belief is that it was chosen by the Duke of Wellington, inspired by the bravery of a soldier, Private Thomas Atkins, during the Flanders Campaign in 1794.
As to bangers. Due to severe food shortages during the war there was little meat to spare for sausage making. Instead, the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables – and with water. When they were cooked over open fires, especially on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence bangers. The popular bangers and mash also acquired a new name in the war – Zeppelins in a cloud. However, this is one name that didn’t stick.
Blighty did though, for a long time. It comes from the Urdu word vilayati, which means foreigner. When the British ruled India it was applied to an English, British or European and was bastardised into the word blighty. It’s popularity increased in the First World War. It was slang for a period of leave back home. In time it simply came to mean England as immortalised in the song Take me back to dear old Blighty.
Next time you take or look at a snapshot remind yourself that in the war it meant quite literally to aim quickly and shoot with your rifle. Or when you drop into someone’s office for a chat, think of how different it would have been in the trenches. Chat was another name for a louse. Since it took some time to pick the vermin off their clothes and skin, the soldiers talked or, in their own words, chatted, while they did so. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, chatting for talking goes back to1440. And lice have been called chats since 1690.
Bonking, bullshit, joystick, muck about, ace, camouflage – these are all in use today but they are populalry thought to have their origins in the First World War. So if you are feeling washed out, or downright lousy and thoroughly fed up with the bumf your boss piles onto your desk and don’t feel you are getting a fair whack, thank your lucky stars that you are living in 2014 and not 1914. Compared to what those soldiers had to endure, you really are onto a cushy number.