Perfectly ordinary banter, 1944

Sunday News, 30 July 1944, 4

Since this thread received absolutely no love over on Twitter, some lazyblogging of a 1944 article entitled 'Jargon of the skies' by James E. Wellard on RAF and US Army slang, published in the Toronto Star Weekly (via the Perth Sunday Times):

Gremlin was evidently already widely known, as it still is today -- though originally they were somewhere between Richard Donner and Joe Dante (see above). Wellard traced the origins of gremlin to 'About four years ago' [1940], 'when a group of RAF pilots was sitting in the mess':

They had finished dinner and were relaxing over cigarettes. Suddenly their squadron leader, with a great bristling moustache, said, 'Why dammit, there's his footprints.'

The others looked startled, then they followed the squadron leader's gaze. He was staring at the ceiling and, sure enough, on the white ceiling of the mess room there was a succession of little footshaped marks. They led from a ventilation grill in the far corner of the room to a grill in the middle.

'Well, whadd'ya know?' exclaimed an Eagle Squadron pilot. 'It must be the footprints of the little man who wasn't there.'

'No,' replies the moustached Englishman. 'They're gremlin marks. Poppa Gremlin lives in the centre grill and Momma in the side one.' Pop's been visiting her.'

But while gremlin does seem to be a RAF coinage, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it predates the war by a decade or even more, in use in Malta, the Middle East and/or India from perhaps 1923.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a copy of this poem online.

Here's an example of a sentence that you might hear 'sitting at the table in an RAF mess':

Which is translated as 'George was a recruit at the same time the speaker was but he is still only a trainee'. Supposedly, 'The British like to invent new words, the Americans new expressions'; and 'The RAF, as the youngest and liveliest branch of the British armed forces, has produced most of the slang'. Here are some examples:

Some words aren't defined in the article, probably because they were already widely understood beyond the military. Indeed, prang, crash, still is (at least in British and Australian English -- maybe sprog too, though now meaning a small child); erk, groundcrew, is not, though it's familiar enough to anyone who grew up on a diet of Paul Brickhill (ditto for gong); flannel in this context was quite mysterious to me but apparently means to bluff. The bowdlerised snafoo, or snafu, is eternally applicable. Of the other words, china clipper is quite clever, but probably obsoleted by the advance of dishwashing technology or at least better stacking practices.

A few more RAF words, demonstrating the importance to airmen of the next meal:

And these are from the other side of the Atlantic and down on the ground:

St Vitus davenport is pretty good, though it seems a bit convoluted for everyday use.

Wellard argues that slanguage is not only fun, but can be tactically useful:

The meaning of this American example is left as an exercise for the reader:

Finally, a link back to an old post:

No overlap between the two articles, though many of the 1917 words would have still made sense in 1944.

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2 thoughts on “Perfectly ordinary banter, 1944

  1. Erik Lund

    Past your remit, Brett, but I was just reading the 17 February 1949 leader in Flight covering a demonstration flight from Seattle to DC by an XB-47 (ten miles a minute at 30,000ft!). You'll be gratified to know that the bomber will always get through, and that panicked efforts to develop interceptors are required, etc.

    Specifically, guided missiles, which is where it gets interesting, since late February numbers of Time and Newsweek cover guided missiles --and also satellites and space exploration. Time actually puts the stories on facing pages. I'm not sure without closer reading just how clearly the connection between guided missiles and space exploration is made, but the satellite connection is clear enough. (Satellites provide guidance. . . )

    So bomber panics are set to turn into space race panics --which I think was already part of the anatomy of national security panics. I guess I'm bugging you because I had no idea that it started as early as 1949.

  2. Post author

    Interesting! Yes, there's definitely a connection, a lot of the tropes of the 1920s and 1930s get recycled after 1945, such as Space Cadet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. But it's easy to overlook how early the military-industrial complex was pushing this, too. Somebody should write a history of the bomber/missile, with equal stress on both parts of 'aerospace'...

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