H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
invariably used in the singular. We heard a soldier telling about a patrol encounter in which he and twenty companions had driven a slightly larger German force out of an abandoned farmhouse, and he said: When we came over the top of the hill we found Jerry. He stuck to that usage all through the story. In the last year of the war the American army began to find names for various things, but the slang list of the first year was short. The French army was the most prolific of all in language, and several large dictionaries of French trench slang have already been published.
The chief cause of this American backwardness is not far to seek. During the first year of American participation in the war few Americans got to France, and those who did found an enormous army of Britishers already in the field. These Britishers, in their three years of service, had developed a vast vocabulary of slang, and it stood ready for use. Naturally enough, some of it was borrowed forthwith, though not much. When the main American army followed in 1918 there was little need to make extensive additions to it. Frog, for Frenchman, was entirely satisfactory; why substitute anything else? So was cootie. So was bus. So was Holy Joe, for chaplain. So were blimp, Jack Johnson, whizz-bang, to strafe and pill-box. Whatever was needed further was adapted from the everyday slang of the United States. Thus, handshaker came to mean a soldier sycophantic to officers, to bust got the new meaning of to demote, and the cowboy outfit was borrowed for general military use. Most of the remaining slang that developed among the troops was derisory, e. g., Sears-Roebuck for a new lieutenant, loot for lieutenant, Jewish cavalry for the Quartermasters force, belly-robber for the mess-sergeant, punk for bread, canned-monkey for the French canned beef, gold-fish for canned salmon. Much that remained was obscene, and had its origin in the simple application of obscene verbs and adjectives, long familiar, to special military uses. In the Vocabulary of the A. E. F. compiled by E. A. Hecker and Edmund Wilson, Jr.,16 fully 25 per cent. of the terms listed show more or less indecency; the everyday speech of the troops was extraordinarily dirty. But in this department, as I say, there were
Note 16. It remains unpublished, but the compilers have kindly placed it at my disposal. [back]