From 'warphan' to 'skelter': Did you know these war-related terms?

Many of the terms go back to an earlier era of conflict

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 9 Nov 2023, 8:28 PM

As headlines speak of war and carnage in Gaza and Ukraine, this column turns, unavoidably, to the vocabulary of war. Many of the terms go back to an earlier era of conflict, the Second World War — a time of immense upheaval, marked not only by physical destruction and killing but also by the birth of new words and phrases responding to the unique experiences of the era.

One of the earliest and most poignant wartime expressions was “blackout”. It referred to the practice of turning off lights during air-raid alarms to prevent enemy aircraft from spotting targets. Some questioned the appropriateness of the term, suggesting alternatives like “lights-out” or even “black-in”. However, “blackout” captured the essence of the practice, which involved plunging cities into darkness, emphasising the urgency and sombre nature of the times.

The German term “Blitzkrieg”, meaning “lightning war”, became naturalised in English during World War II. It described the swift and overwhelming style of warfare employed by the Nazis, particularly when they moved into Poland. The term demonstrated the rapid, devastating nature of the Nazi military advance. “U-boat” was another term that found its way permanently into the English language; short for “undersea-boat”, it referred to German submarines. Among German techniques of war, “block-buster” was an aerial bomb of such magnitude that it could obliterate an entire city block, a chilling reminder of the destructive power of warfare and of the massive impact of aerial bombardments on civilian populations.

“Bomphleteer”, meanwhile, referred to the brave airmen tasked with dropping propaganda materials in enemy territory. These individuals played a crucial role in psychological warfare, attempting to influence enemy morale through printed words rather than bombs. The term itself carried a certain irony, blending “bomb” and “pamphleteer” to describe a mission where words were used as weapons.

Civilians did not escape being labelled by war terminology. A British official, Harold Nicolson, invented “chatter-bug” for civilians who spread information or rumours. It was used in the context of efforts to combat the spread of misinformation during the war, highlighting the importance of maintaining secrecy and security. A “roof spotter” was a lookout for enemy aircraft, stationed on rooftops to identify incoming threats. These individuals played a vital role in civilian defence, helping to protect communities during air raids. A frightened civilian was referred to as a “shiver-sister”. This term underscored the need for national resilience and the need to maintain courage and solidarity in the face of fear during wartime.

The affectionate slang for air-raid shelters — “skelter” — emphasised the urgency of running helter-skelter to find shelter during air raids. The “siren-suit” was a practical piece of clothing designed for use during air raids — the fusion of fashion and necessity in times of crisis. The colourful nicknames “Moaning Minnie” and “Howling Horace” for air-raid sirens reflected the eerie and unsettling nature of the sounds they emitted. They humanised these inanimate wails, to capture the anxiety and fear they instilled. “Guinea-pig” described both evacuees and soldiers billeted in local homes. The nickname drew a parallel with the small, defenceless rodents used for experiments, reflecting the mass movement and upheaval experienced by many during the war. A poignant term, “warphan”, was a shortened version of “war orphan”. It described the heartbreaking condition of millions of children worldwide who lost their parents during the war.

Occasionally a proper noun makes its way into the language. The term “quisling”, for a traitor and collaborator, comes from the actual surname of Major Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian officer who collaborated with the Nazis and betrayed his own people. The word “quisling”, derived from his name, embodied the profound contempt and distrust reserved for collaborators and traitors, reflecting the moral outrage that war so often evokes. Similarly a British propagandist on Radio Berlin was dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw” for his upper-class accent.

These words and phrases emerged to capture the unique challenges, emotions, and innovations of a world at war. Each term reflects the complex interplay of language and history during a defining period of twentieth century history. They serve as linguistic artefacts, providing a glimpse into the experiences and perceptions of people who lived through those turbulent times. No doubt Gaza and Ukraine will, in due course, produce their share of new words.

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