If ‘lol’, ‘poke’ and ‘like’ have been fathered by the internet, then ‘pipsqueak’, ‘lousy’ and ‘zigzag’ owe their existence to the First World War. Social media’s digital chatter has changed common parlance; the War, too, affected language by introducing new words to the lexicon. The completion of a hundred years of the First World War has occasioned several commemorations in Europe. Amidst these, the Oxford English Dictionary is paying a linguistic tribute to the Great War through a curation of one hundred words to define the event. It is rather befitting because the war was as dependent on the spoken and the written word as it was on guns.
Warfare was as much about communication as it was about guns. It wasn’t for nothing that the British government secretly sought the services of Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, H.G.Wells and John Buchan to write propaganda for the war: morale was everything and winning or losing depended on it. The national duty of these authors was to keep the hopes of entire nations buoyed up: the horrors of the trenches had to be cleverly disguised before they reached the mothers, wives and fathers at home. Hence journalists’ accounts of soldiers often used a sense of joviality: troops were portrayed as brothers, joking around as if they were going to a big game.
In a way, the war witnessed changes in human communication quite similar to those caused by the internet — one hundred years ago, people found themselves interacting with others from vastly different cultures and demographics. Languages cross-bred and produced new (often illegitimate) expressions which, in turn, helped create a peculiar inventory of war-stories that were fuelled by rumour as well.
The press, in particular, breathed life into these tales. One particularly stomach-churning story that appeared in print was that of the Cadaver factories — reports floated around that numerous processing units had sprung up in enemy territory where the dead were being boiled down for their lard. With resources cut off by the English naval blockade, the enemy was apparently recycling humans to make soap, candles and munitions apart from using them as food for pig and poultry. In 1917, a certain Sergeant ‘B’ wrote in The Times, no less, that the Germans had begun to call their margarine ‘corpse-fat’.
Propaganda wasn’t the only agency spawning these tales. Soldiers’ imaginations fabricated wild ‘truths’ — giant, skulking hounds filling the night with blood curdling howls, stalking corpses in no man’s land, leaving men dead with bite marks at the throat. Perhaps the fiction they had read (Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902) was more believable than the nightmare of their reality. From the warfront, this soldier talk reached the civilians through the press. In 1919, an Oklahoma newspaper reported that the animal wasn’t just the product of hallucinating, shell-shocked minds; it was a dog with the brain of a mad man — the result of a German experiment gone very wrong.
A hundred years since 1914, history books call these stories lies. Perhaps they just tell a different story. How is it that we readily believe that humans have attempted global self-destruction (twice) but have difficulty accepting that a giant hound was stalking the dead? Isn’t the past just a bunch of words strung together as stories?
A hundred years from now, the internet is going to be the future equivalent of carrier pigeons. With more and more people recording details of what meals they ate, where they went, what they wore and, most importantly, what they think, multiple histories (and herstories) are being written with enough room for Edward Snowdens. Of course, facts will be fudged in this process as well — life isn’t the grand party that it is on Facebook.
But perhaps in the future, we will not accord godly importance to facts alone; the future’s truth will lie in fiction.