Monday, June 25, 2007

Burgoo, cushy, and other oojah

"Here! Just grab the oojah an' dash round to the tiddley-om-pom for some umpty-poo!" [Fetch a bucket of coke from the stores]. Punch, 24 Jan 1917.
I came across a nice old article from the The Washington Post (22 Jul 1917) in which an orderly from a British army hospital goes into detail about the frustrations with trying to understand the new slang used by soldiers (referred to as "Tommy Atkins") in the hospital, from rhyming slang to imitations of words picked up from Hindustani or other Indo-Persian languages.

Favorite quotation: "I fear that the rhyming slang fashion is all too deeply established : our recruits are carrying it far and wide, and its entry into the civilian language will be one of the least satisfactory souvenirs of Armageddon."

Ward Muir's Observations of an Orderly goes into much more detail and the history behind these terms and others, such as tank-wallah, blotto, and jammy.

Here is the Washington Post article reprinted in full:


War Brings New Lingo

British Soldiers Enjoy Slang as Hospital Pastime. -- Talk In Strange Metaphor -- Visit to Operating Room Known as "Going to the Pictures" -- Recruits From All Parts of World Add to New Language of Army Life in Europe.

London, July 21.-- An entirely new crop of slang has come into force in the British army during the past year. They have taken the place of "blighty" and the rest of the picturesque synonyms that were uppermost a year or so ago. A hospital orderly writes about them as follows:

"There is a brand of cheap cigarettes, popular in the army, known by the name of 'Singles to Woking.' The allusion enwrapped in this mild witticism is typical of the oblique mischievousness which characterizes the best of Tommy's slang. Tommy has a passion for what one might call the pseudo-grumble. He is a grouser who doesn't mean his grousing to be taken seriously.

Jokes of "Danger Last."

"Having served for two terms as an orderly in a war hospital, I may claim to speak with some assurance of that lovable, absurd, cheery malcontent - the British soldier. I have heard him crack jokes about a timber shortage, for instance. Can you guess why? Because he had found out that officially he was on what is known as the Danger List (and let me say that only a hero could crack jokes when in such a state as to be on the Danger List), and was voicing the charming theory that he might be 'bilked of a coffin.' That is our fearless and macabre Mr. Atkins all over. Another of his war hospital pleasantries is to announce that he is 'going to the pictures.' This is the regular phrase for the visit to the operating theater. And isn't it rather fine?

"But I wish Tommy would rid himself of his habit of using rhyming slang. It is a curse, this vast list of synonyms which, I can only surmise, originated somewhere far back in the thieves' latin of the tramp. Both the old army and the new are in the thraldom of the inane lingo. 'Chevvy chase' means 'face,' 'mince pie' means 'eye,' 'false alarm' means 'arm,' 'almond rocks' means 'socks,' 'daisy root' means 'boot.' I could (for my sins) continue the dismal catalogue down a column.

Calls Mask His Oojah.

"Heaven forbid that I should perpetuate such a monument of silliness; but, indeed, I fear that the rhyming slang fashion is all too deeply established : our recruits are carrying it far and wide, and its entry into the civilian language will be one of the least satisfactory souvenirs of Armageddon.

"At the hospitals, either in the wards or the recreation room, the collector of outré neologisms would have a happy hunting ground. 'Pass the oojah,' says the one-armed man who is playing billiards. What is the oojah? The oojah is any object in heaven or earth; it is the thing which has no name or the name of which you have temporarily forgotten. The one-armed man, about to make his stroke, requires the little twisted wire bridge, mounted on a lead pedestal, that forms the cue rest which--poor chap!--he ought to have formed with his lost hand. So he demands the oojah, which is army for what-d'ye-call-it. And his opponent, whose face is so disguised that he has had to be given a molded mask to cover part of it, dubs his mask his oojah.

"Oojah may come from the East, with 'cushy,' and 'blighty,' and 'bondook' (a rifle), and 'Sieda' (good morning), and 'burgoo' (porridge), and a host of other jolly synonyms. But where did 'click' and 'rumble' originate?

Coins New Verbs.

"To be rumbled is to be found out : you may be 'rumbled swinging the lead', which means that your shamming or shirking is detected. But if you apply for a 'soft job,' and obtain it, you have clicked. Again, you may 'spruce.' The verb 'to spruce' is obscure; but one may illustrate its employment by mentioning that if a war hospital convalescent who should be useful, washing dishes or cleaning knives for his ward sister vanishes with the design of evading these responsibilities, he is sprucing. In other words, he is 'doing a mike.' On his return, sister will doubtless 'tick him off,' or his comrades 'give him the bird.' Doubly will this be the case if he has been observed afar in colloquy with a 'pusher' (girl), and is suspected of 'chancing his mit' (spinning a far-fetched yarn) or telling 'a sob-story.'

Slang Is Catching.

"And as I go about my hospital duties in the midst of this babel of metaphor which has come not only from all over the British Isles, but from India and the colonies (to say nothing of 'na-poo' and the rest of the harvest from France) I wonder whether my native tongue will ever be the same again. For I have reeled beneath the assault of O. Henryisms in New York, and I remember with grim anticipation that America, too, has entered the war, and her troops are also to mingle not only their blood, but their bewildering idiom with ours. A formidable prospect, for there is no disease more catching than slang."


Source: The Washington Post. 22 Jul 1917. pg ES10.

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