An episode from Michael Palin & Terry Jones’ late 70s BBC comedy series Ripping Yarns
L.P. Hartley’s opening statement in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, has been well served by this project. Moreover, it’s seemed however familiar you think you are with the language being written, wherever in the world its writers may have been back then, they did tend to talk funny too. In the 1910s, the world was becoming familiar with ‘phones and ‘planes, motoring, wires and cables, and talk of such contraptions found a place in British parlance while other tropes, mercifully perhaps, have themselves become part of history. This post is by way of a primer for some of those differences.
Jolly hockey sticks
The above series for many will be the best reminder of the use of ripping for something really good, and yarn for a story, not necessarily an accurate one. Both feature, the former a great deal in the Berryman brothers’ letters home. Vying with ripping on the hyperbole front you’ll also find topping and top-hole, but ripping leads the field. Disturbingly it implies that the Whitechapel murders a quarter of a century earlier were committed by a really great guy called Jack. When something goes wrong though, like letters being lost, it tends to be rotten or sickening.
The Berryman family were wealthy – not Downton Abbey-level wealthy, but well-off enough to employ a domestic (a rickety old man by the name of Capon, who sounds to me like a parody of that sort of person). This grandeur comes across significantly in their writing, and it’s occasionally too easy to imagine them sounding like Lieutenant George and General Melchett from Blackadder Goes Forth, albeit with a greater propensity to be shot at.
One of the more prevalent idioms is anyrate without a space, just meaning anyway or however. It’s mostly written “at anyrate” but still anyrate is treated as a single word throughout, and thanks to the BBC’s recent documentary I Was There: The Great War Interviews, it can be heard here used as such by a veteran (5m 50s in)
Signs of the times
To-day and to-night have yet to upgrade to unified words, and nowadays and these days both tend to refer to the current few days being spoken of, more than to any wider appraisal of the zeitgeist. A great deal of longing goes on, not just to be home with loved ones; to receive a particular bit of news, an expected parcel item or just for a wash and some clean clothes. If the authors are excited or encouraged by something, they may well be bucked. Special occasions are spinky and if people are nervous, they’re in a funk. The tension along the trenches one night is described by Ted as Mr. Funk, offering an unusual context to James Brown’s invitation, some six decades later, to get down.
Another regular is krewst, a family in-joke apparently meaning an adventure of some sort. Also F.F. which was assumed to mean Forced or False Friendship (as between people stuck on a boat), but seems at times to lean more towards a simple face-to-face.
Nation shall curtsey unto nation
As with ships still today, discussion of countries at war – or who ought to be – mostly from Ted, refers to them as female. America can’t seem to make up her mind, Germany is showing her true colours, etc. This is reasonable for people from a country with the largest empire in history and proudest mercantile heritage (“Britannia rule the waves”) after its – sorry, her longest reigning monarch Victoria had so recently passed on. The tradition of a feminine “motherland” to be defended, to the death if necessary, by her offspring is worldwide and ancient – planet Earth itself is a matriarch for some – but when the enemy is personified as a single individual (the Hun, the Boche, the German, the Turk) the villanous swine is, needless to say, a he.
Fit but you know it
It’s a long time before fit became analogous with sexually attractive, though from an evolutionary perspective one tends to support the other (not to be conflated with the maxim survival of the fittest, which while it can and often does still mean the most fit, more accurately in that context means best fit for its environment). But throughout the letters the Berryman boys’ poor anxious mother is consistently reminded of how fit and well, hale and hearty her children are, even after having been wounded or almost drowned. The British upper lip was never stiffer. If they are ill, however, they may well be seedy.
The very model
Bridget Jones’ “V. good” / “V. bad” habit can at least be traced back to the Great War as Paul is partial to starting with “V. many thanks for your letter”, which was infuriating as I’d forget about it, then press return at the end of that paragraph for the software to assume a (Roman) numbered list was intended and indent it, then start a fresh one with VI.
But when very or v or muchly won’t do, the standard options (excepting jolly) have been awfully, fearfully, dreadfully, frightfully, terribly or terrifically. All allusions to a looming threat when applied to an abundance of something, whether good or bad. I’m no philologist, but I love how well that seems to reflect the Victorian prude in all of them. It adds context to the subsequently roaring Twenties. As does –
For auld lang syne
Anyone or anything – be it a brand new boat, a dog, or a pretty young lady back home – if regarded with fondness is old, as in poor old Topher. That’s how you know it’s valuable.
No ifs, lots of buts
There is a fair bit of conceptual ping-pong along the way when the brothers write something along the lines of statement A, but condition B, but counter-condition C, but counter-counter-condition D… which gets disorienting on occasion.
All the world’s a stage
Amidst numerous theatres of the war almost anything, from a single military manoeuvre to a wider offensive strategy or entire campaign – the sinking of a ship costing hundreds of lives, nearly claiming the author’s – a one-off turn of events or an important institution of some sort can be and usually is a show, if not necessarily a bloody good one. Ted, in October 1918:
“Bulgaria’s surrender & the Turkish defeat in Palestine must sooner or later materially affect our little corner of the stage-“
On a few occasions though, particularly for Paul, it might even mean an actual show.
Pedant’s, take heart that some indiscretions are steeped in history such as this, again from Ted in 1918.
“I literally have’nt had a minute to spare, & what I have had I have spent with Jim.”