Wars, soldiers and remembrance, not surprisingly, have a large impact on language.
Soldiers returning from overseas posts bring with them the foreign languages of these posts and in-group slang from everyday life. First world war Anzacs ate munga “food, meal” (from a Cairo version of the French manger) and on demand had to alley at the toot “go immediately” (a playful take on the French allez tout de suite).
Stories of these words can be confused or perhaps contrived. Plonk as a word for alcohol is popularly attributed to first world war Anzacs, reputedly a shortened version of the French vin blanc.
But lexicographer Bruce Moore points out plonk doesn’t appear as a reference to “alcohol” in Australian English until the 1930s. Plonk in this sense is conspicuously absent in WH Downing’s thorough and well-cited 1919 account of Digger Dialects.
For the Anzacs, plonk served as a reference to artillery or the sound artillery made when it fell.
Some words of war and remembrance fade with time. Still others come to serve as the foundations for national identity. Why a word takes one path or the other can be linked to a word’s origin, its use across history, and our preferences about what constitutes language of remembrance.
Lest we forget lest
To these ends, “lest we forget” is an expression of remembrance par excellence. It has dignified origins, a rich history and a budding linguistic fossil: lest.
A linguistic fossil is an archaic or obsolete word that persists in a language due to its use in idioms. For instance, we still bandy about figuratively where bandy’s more literal use in tennis had faded away by the 17th century.
“Lest” is a tenacious form in that it has seemingly been fossil-bound since Early Modern English times, but has survived to a certain degree outside the idiom. From the 17th century, lest’s use has largely been restricted to very formal, often written contexts.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines lest as:
a negative particle of intention or purpose, introducing a clause expressive of something to be prevented or guarded against.
It dates to Old English (circa 1000), where it appeared as part of the construction þý lǽs þe “whereby less that”.
In the Middle English period, the þý was dropped (as part of a wider simplification of English grammatical marking), and the remaining lǽs þe “less the” subsequently became contracted to “lest”.
It is well-documented that the pervasive and idiomatic Anzac Day use of “lest we forget” can be linked to an 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem Recessional, written for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (Queen Elizabeth got Rolf Harris).
Kipling, for his part, was reputedly inspired to use “lest we forget” by its appearance in Deuteronomy 6:12:
Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
Language, solemness and kin
Kipling’s Biblical inspiration, and our subsequent poetic inspiration are no accident. We humans are often drawn to religious, poetic and anachronistic language in the forging of shared culture and experience.
English language scholar Geoffrey Hughes notes that two prevailing themes of Anglo-Saxon poetry were the celebration of battle and cynn. The latter were a tightly knit group whose verbal bond was sacred. In Modern English, we know this group as “kin”, which we more closely think of in familial rather than verbal ways.
Sacred bonds are often formed through sacred texts, which are more often than not written in older forms of a language. The Qur'an and sacred Islamic texts are written in the Arabic of the 7th century. Some Muslims view the mere existence of spoken varieties of Arabic (e.g. Syrian Arabic, Egyptian Arabic) as proof of shared human weakness.
For our part, modern English speakers have long been drawn to the 17th-century King James Bible, in spite, or more likely because, of its use of Early Modern English. Its use of the wider, case-marked pronominal system (thou/thee and ye/you) and the verbal suffix -th (it blesseth; it giveth) added a certain aura of authority and godliness to the text.
Notably, as with “lest”, the use of these pronouns and this suffix were already conservative and becoming restricted to literature and formal contexts around the same time the Bible was published. At this time, focusing on verbal suffixing, Shakespeare notably varied between the -s and the -th even within the same sentence as this text from The Merchant of Venice shows:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
The King James Bible, on the other hand, exclusively uses the -th suffix.
Words of remembrance
Of course, words needn’t be linked to ancient texts or be anachronistic forms to be sacred. The many ways in which we refer to soldiers illustrates this point.
Anzac, as an acronym, is sacrosanct, its use regulated by the government as illustrated by recent “misuses” by business. The occasional negative or less than sacrosanct meanings of Anzac tend to fade away.
For instance, in addition to Anzac’s neutral or positive connotations, Downing’s account of Digger Dialects lists Anzac as a sarcastic reference for military police.
The American initials “GI”, in contrast, have a less illustrious beginning, and it remains a rather neutral term. GI, in popular accounts, gets linked to the printing of GI (for General or Government Issue) on soldiers’ government-issued belongings.
Yet, the “general issue” meaning of GI did not emerge until the second world war and, like Anzac, the origins of GI can be traced to the first world war. GI first appeared on the US Government garbage cans of the time, which had been made of “galvanised iron”.
Galvanised iron, of course, brought Aussies another first world war word in the form of J. Furphy and Sons’ water-cart, where rumours and gossip were exchanged. And, dear Aussies (yet another word linked to the first world war), that’s no furphy.