War and Words

November 11th 2018, saw the 100th year anniversary of WW1 – or The Great War as it is often referred to. The word ‘great’ here refers to the significant numbers of mobilised troops, soldiers, casualties and fatalities. There are words and phrases and even foods that we still have today that are owed to war times and I thought I would share a few with you.


Today, when we buy a cheap bottle of wine which is easy to drink, we describe it as ‘plonk’.  This word is a corruption of the French phrase for white wine which, of course, is ‘vin blanc’.  However, the average Tommy could not read French let alone pronounce the words correctly – hence Ypres became Wipers and Vin Blanc became ‘plonk’.


Sticking with drinking:

You still hear older people talking about ‘going out on the pop’ meaning that they are going out for the evening and will be drinking.  Poperinghe was a Belgian town taken over by the British Army. It was only towards the end of the war that enemy guns were able to fire into the town so for much of the war the town was a safe haven.  A huge number of tented camps (and hospitals) were erected around it and the soldiers who were resting out of the line and / or undergoing further military training could go into the town and enjoy the local beer and some ‘plonk’.  When telling their friends of their plans they would say that they were ‘going out on the pop’ meaning that they were going into the centre of Poperinghe for a drink.


And if they were very lucky and weren’t arrested by the Military Police for being drunk, they might also be able to enjoy a meal of egg and chips.  A simple meal – but one which offered a much-appreciated change from the usual tins of beef stew issued. With eggs and potatoes galore, these were cooked up by the landlords – making this is probably the original pub grub.  When the soldiers made it back home and ‘egg and chips’ became a standard part of the British menu.


Often referred to now as going that extra mile by completing a job well done or you put your all into something, we say I’ve gone the whole nine yards. Although sparingly used where possible, this phrase actually means firing all of the shells from a Vickers machine gun from an ammunition belt which measured 9 yards and held 250 rounds. These 9-yard belts could be clipped together for continuous firing – said to have lasted for 7 days straight! So, soldiers would have a whole nine yards of expended ammo!


Body lice were rife in the trenches and lived in the seams and pleats of clothing where they bred in huge numbers causing skin rashes and severe itching. This expression actually comes from the Hindi word for parasite which is ‘Chatt’. Soldiers would sit around talking and picking the lice from their bodies which was really what ‘having a chat’ meant! Less talking and more picking! So, when someone asks you to go for a chat – be careful!


They say that smoking kills! Superstitiously, it was bad luck to light a third cigarette from the same match and this was sound advice! It took a German Sniper about 5 seconds at night to see, aim and fire at a light source. 5 seconds was the amount of time it took for the unlucky third man to light up from the same match. Possibly where the saying ‘Three strikes and you’re out!’ comes from.


Junk mail – straight in the recycling bin for most of us. Printed paper that is produced in huge quantities for no discernible reason and with little value.  BUMF is derived from the army term ‘bum-fodder’. Paper that has only one practical use in place of the luxury of toilet roll!  This referred to the excessive written orders issued from army HQ where regiments would gather huge piles of paper for their own recycling purpose.


Today we use this to say that something is easy, or you’ve had a stroke of luck – like a job that doesn’t take much effort. Cushy is actually the war word for a wound! It had to be a very serious wound indeed to withdraw from active duty, often leaving the soldier with a disability; blindness, losing a limb or multiple limbs and going home was latterly seen to be ‘cushy’. Quite a sacrifice just to get home, and not so cushy after all.


Another word the British couldn’t get to grips with through poor pronunciation. This word actually comes from the French phrase il n’y en a plus, which means ‘there is no more’. Usually meaning that Tommy got napoo’d (killed) this morning. In post war years you would say this after a meal when you push your plate away. There is no more! Done, all gone, finished.


Soldiers were issued with an entrenching tool, which was basically a small spade / shovel – to help them dig not only the main trench but their own little dug-outs in the sides of the trench walls.  Of course, there were also cess pits for them to use when they were in the trenches, but the latrines were often heavily shelled by the enemy.  So, to keep themselves safe – they used the bowl of the spade / shovel to catch the poo and then disposed of it by throwing it away – officially behind their own lines but quite often into No Mans’ Land in the hope that the offending material would disturb the enemy!  Soldiers had competitions to see who could throw the furthest!

In the absence of toilet paper, they often had no choice but to use their hands.  Certainly, toilet paper was not a part of soldiers’ rations during the war and many of them used either the newspapers that were sent to them or even their family’s letters. That is why there are so few surviving collections of letters from families to troops in the trenches.

So many lives lost for the freedom we enjoy today. So, when you hear any of these words in the future, spare a thought for all of our fallen heroes.

If you’d like to put together quirky and creative words to use in your business, or name a product or service, contact Wendy Jennings Creative who can help you come up with something memorable and meaningful!