Monday, March 28, 2022

Lynda Mugglestone's "Writing a War of Words"

Lynda Mugglestone is Professor of the History of English at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Pembroke College. Her research explores language history, language change and attitudes, and lexicography from the eighteenth century onwards, as well as on the history of pronunciation and its social and cultural framing. She is the author of Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol (2nd ed., 2007), Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction (2011), and Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words (2015), and editor of The Oxford History of English (2nd ed., 2012).

Mugglestone applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Writing a War of Words: Andrew Clark and the Search for Meaning in World War One, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Barbed wire had already made a limited appearance in defensive structures in the Boer War. Nevertheless, across the autumn of 1914, Clark found himself documenting the consolidation, and chilling connotations, of the wire in war-time use, alongside cutters (wire-cutters or nippers) as useful pieces of trench kit, and barbwire as yet another verb for the art of war. ‘We found their barbed wire all right, and got to work with our cutters, when a searchlight began to play all around’, narrates another first-person account. Barbed in OED1 (in an entry written in 1885) had referred to horses, and armaments of a very different kind. Entanglements had been made of wood. ‘Talk about entanglements!’, a reprinted letter from Private Watts of the Cheshire Regiment (carefully pasted into ‘Words in War-Time’) instead exclaimed:
Give me shells and bullets before them. A man never knows how useless struggling is till he gets into loose barbed wire. Every movement mixes him worse, and he is lucky if he can keep his face out of the spikes. Some of our chaps will carry ugly marks all their lives.
By December 1914, as Clark noted with interest, barbed wire entanglements had moreover been appropriated as a war-time metaphor for language itself, deftly reminding of the caution necessary in approaching contemporary songs such as ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers’ (briefly popular ‘as a tongue-twister at soldier’s concerts’, he explained). Even a few months earlier, uses of this kind would have challenged popular comprehension. ‘Extremely frequent, 1914‒15’, Clark commented: ‘Not in N.E.D as military term’.

A changing language of space and place was equally evident. Clark in his diary repeatedly documented the departure of the young men of the village ‘to the front’. At the front, Macnaughtan contends, was so common that it might best be seen as a single word. Front, referring to ‘The foremost line or part of an army or battalion’ was, by 1914, familiar and familiarized. Contemporary comment, Clark noted, nevertheless often suggested new specificities as well as new combinatory forms. The red-asterisked fighting front, war front (dated to 1950 in the modern OED), or battle front, another unregistered term in 1914, to particularize the zone of active engagement, as was battle zone (dated to 1931 in the modern OED). These operated, Clark suggested, in contradistinction to the front in general – itself referred to, in other neologism, as the
Writing a War of Words explores the real-time work of Andrew Clark, a historian and logophile extraordinaire, to track the changing language of WWI between 1914-1919., drawing on the series of almost one hundred densely documented notebooks, replete with clippings, annotations, ephemera, and an acutely observant sense of words, that Clark created, and which have hitherto remained largely unexamined. As even a quick glance page 99 readily confirms, for example, Clark’s focus was directed not to canonical writers – the great writers and poets who formed, for instance, main sources of the contemporaneous Oxford English Dictionary, the first edition of which, in 1914, was still making its way through the alphabet, and on which Clark had long been a volunteer. Instead, his notebooks centre on the ordinary and every-day, in a collection that privileges the language of newspapers, advertising, of letters from the front or, say, reported speech and the words of, and about, men, women, and children as Britain navigated new forms of warfare, at home and abroad.

If the opening chapters of the book therefore introduce Clark and his chosen methodologies, alongside a reading campaign of daunting ambition, page 99 takes us to the language of war itself, and the shifting diction and discourse of trench warfare alongside the new salience (and shifting meanings) of entanglements and barbed wire, and of the colloquial cutters and nippers that made up other vital aspects of trench kit. We can, for instance, easily see Clark’s interest in the value of first-person accounts, and his magpie-like salvaging of the kind of information that might otherwise be lost as part of his living history of words in use. Significant, too, is his comparative reading against the Oxford English Dictionary as it then existed, and the gaps and absences that he carefully identified. At the same time, however, page 99, with its focus on the male-orientated world of conflict, is strikingly unrepresentative of the diversity of Clark’s interests as explored elsewhere in the book where e.g. the language of recruiting, or of women and children on the home front, or health and sickness, death and injury, and the discourse of total war – and the terror and terrorism of aerial bombardment on civilian targets -- were all traced with Clark’s habitual zeal. A single page can, in this light, offer an illuminating snapshot – but it will, of necessity, produce silences that are, in a range of ways, contested or removed as the rest of the book unfolds. As in Clark’s original notebooks, the work as a whole investigates a micro-history of English in a period of unprecedented historical change, documenting thousands of words and meanings that have since been lost from view.
Learn more about the English Words in War-Time Project.

The Page 99 Test: Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words.

--Marshal Zeringue