Keeping the Anzac flame alive
The Age, July 7, 2014
Wi-Fi. Clean water. Semi-dried tomatoes. We lead such cushy lives compared with the Anzacs a century ago. In many ways we have our diggers to thank. Once for the peaceful democracy we take for granted – and twice for cushy, the word.
Australians first heard the word on the Western Front. Its root is Persian, where khush translates as happy. I can just imagine some Indian sapper at the Somme, pining for the cushy past, sharing his yearning with his Allied mates, who adopted the word as their own. Who smuggled it home, along with the lice (or seam squirrels) they carried in their hair.
Conflict is a boon for vocab. Say what you like about the horrors of World War One, the crisis was a grand bazaar for language. Gangrene was not the only thing our troops picked up on the continent. Between skirmishes they swiped binge (courtesy of the English Midlands), camouflage (French), clobber (Yiddish) and even swipe – the klepto kind, from the Canadians.
New words were hatched too, from duckboard to shell shock, whiz-bang and backchat while older terms, such as dud and bloke, found fresh status. Occasionally, tapping this column in my heated office, I’ve glanced at my shoes for fear of Flanders mud. That’s how entrenched I’ve been in the Great War this week, embedded in battlefield slang.
The prime culprit is Roger, Sausage and Whippet: A Miscellany of Trench Lingo from the Great War. Its author, Christopher Moore, spent five years sifting soldiers’ letters and journals, archives and earlier glossaries. One thing is very clear, trudging through the alphabet: few things evoke a distant war as vividly as its dialect.
Sardonic humour imbues the volume. Pickled monkey applied to any lump of anonymous tucker, along with potted dog. Mess biscuits were dubbed concrete macaroons. Goldfish meant tinned sardines, washed down with sheep dip, or medicine. Should a soldier spill a spoonful on his shirt, then he’d have a canteen medal to show for his clumsiness.
Weaponry of the day reads more like a shopping list: jam jars, toffee apples, cricket balls and potato mashers, each one available at the divisional toyshop. Sadly, if this arsenal pierced your webbing, you’d gain a souvenir, or wound. Worse, you might become a landowner, as happened to more than 5 million soldiers – your body buried in foreign soil.
A century later, we think we’re so clever with our snappy new blends, splicing glamour and camping to make glamping. We gloat about our labradoodles, our chocoholics. But the Gallipoli gang were masters of the craft. Their honour roll includes disinsecting, exasperator (gasmask) and balloonatics (operators of observer blimps, or sausages). Though topping the lot is the alias of any aged warrior, a Methusilier.
Yet my favourite slang is Asquith for a French match. The logic links to the British Liberal PM at the time, H.H. Asquith, a leader too distracted to maintain his own policies. As you guessed, the match was equally fickle. After the strike, a soldier had to be sure he nursed a committed flame before proceeding.
A few weeks ago, underwater cameras plumbed Turkey’s Sea of Marmara, probing the interior of an E-class submarine, scuttled during the Dardanelles campaign. Researchers were enthralled. For the first time in 100 years they saw a pair of plimsolls stored on a shelf. Rusted ladders. Steering wheel piles. The abandoned sub, HMAS AE2, was declared a priceless time capsule.
That may be so, but you can keep your sodden sneakers for expressions such as ‘‘Hurry up and wait!’’ Or ‘‘If we had some eggs we could have eggs and bacon – if we had bacon.’’ Say them and you will feel the Anzac hunger, hear the humour, sense the defiant esprit. The Great War defined our nation’s tongue. ‘‘If it keeps on like this, someone’s going to get hurt.’’