The First World War began more than 100 years ago, yet the language of the trenches is still used every day.
Many words and phrases created or popularised through soldiers’ experiences remain alive and well in the Australian lexicon.
The most obvious are ‘Anzac’ and ‘digger’, but others include ‘plonk’ for wine, ‘good oil’ for reliable (and therefore welcome) information, and ‘possie’, an abbreviation of position.
‘Furphy’ (a rumour, an untruth) is another Australian English term originating in the conditions of war — it came from the Furphy water carts around which soldiers gathered to swap stories.
Australian soldiers are even credited with inventing the term ‘Aussie’ (for both Australia and Australian), and they had their own magazine, of the same title, to share experiences.
Examples of Australian ‘slanguage’ have been captured in the design of the Sir John Monash Centre. The ramps leading into the Centre are lined with bricks, some of which are imprinted with the daily slang of Australian soldiers—words like cobber, smoko and two-up.
Researcher Dr Amanda Laugesen, from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, describes ‘slanguage’ as a creative fusion of Australian slang, swear words, and parts of French and other foreign phrases.
Some terms were unique to war, such as ‘whizz-bang’ (a high velocity German gun), ‘Anzac wafer’ (an army biscuit), and ‘flybog’ (jam).
The change to Australia’s vernacular was so profound that just a year after the war ended, Australia had its own published guide to trench talk.
Digger Dialects was edited by a former soldier, Walter Downing, because Australian slang had been ‘modified beyond recognition’ by foreign words and ideas, first in the Middle East and then on the Western Front.
Downing believed the enriched dialect came from the Australians’ collective imagination in the ‘howling desolation of battle-zones’.
‘Our men were isolated nearly the whole … time … from the ways, the thoughts and the speech of the world behind them. … (T)he members of their little communities … were thrown inevitably upon their own intellectual resources,’ he wrote.
Nearly a century later, Dr Laugesen agrees: ‘Language and slang can be a valuable way of beginning to understand a culture.
‘Soldiers also wanted to preserve ‘slanguage’ when they returned from active service. It helped them identify and cope with their experiences, individually and together’.
- Amanda Laugesen. Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Amanda Laugesen. Furphies and Whizzbangs: Anzac Slang from the Great War. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- W. H. Downing. Digger Dialects: A Collection of Slang Phrases used by the Australian Soldiers on Active Service. Melbourne: Lothian, 1919.