Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Botching one's words

Today the Guardian's Sam Wollaston does his regular review of Last night's TV. Predictably he hits on the BBC/HBO co-production of the Churchill biopic:
Were you watching, Gordon? Into the Storm, on BBC2? That's how to do it. So there aren't enough helicopters to fight the Taliban? Did a lack of boats prevent the evacuation of Dunkirk? Of course it didn't. Even members of the war cabinet took a couple of days off work, headed down to the Isle of Wight where their yachts were moored, and got over there. Someone has to have a spare chopper, don't they? What about Lord Sugar?
Nice start, but then this:
We won the war because Churchill wrote, and gave, good speech. He'd come up with a fine line: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few", perhaps, and note it down. Later, he would flesh it out, dictate it to someone. He'd pace up and down, practising his speech to himself or maybe to Clemmie (dear Clemmie), perfecting rhythm and intonation so that he sounded like Laurence Olivier (dear Larry) playing Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, Churchill's favourite film. Then he'd head down to Broadcasting House and deliver it to the nation, who, huddled around their wireless sets, were so moved and inspired they summoned up the collective pluck required to bash the Boche.
That's the on-line version, avoiding a problem in the print version:
... required to bash the Bosch.
It's a local tradition, kick-started by that irreproachable gold-standard of accuracy, Private Eye, to mock the Grauniad's typos. In practice, of course, the Guardian is exemplary (as here) in its fact-checking and (when necessary) correction. Perhaps, Wollaston's Freudian slip reveals a fan of Hieronymous Bosch, either the Dutch painter or the Michael Connelly creation.

However, it was enough to set Malcolm's mind a-buzzing. The last week at Redfellow Hovel has been hell, ever since the gardener used a spade to bisect the main cable feed. Equally, as Malcolm's postings here go into the eighth hundred, it does no harm for the poor old soul to maunder on about usage.

So let him Bash the Boche/Bosch

The term came out of French slang. In 1887 Albert Marie Victor Barrère published Argot and Slang: a New French and English Dictionary of the Cant Words, Quaint Expressions, Slang Terms and Flash Phrases used in the High and Low Life of Old and the New Paris. Phew!

The author was a French teacher, living in London and sharing a house with Hector France. Ten years on Barrère and Charles Leland expanded the earlier work into A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant.

Now we need to consider the state of French literature at that time. In particular we need to refer to the work of Émile Zola. Zola was in turn influenced by the work of American writers, especially Henry James, in forsaking the romanticism of mid-century writers for "naturalism". What that implied was the exploitation of more realistic subject-material, observing the life of "ordinary" folk, and using their speech patterns.

Hence the need for Barrère's work. He explained himself by noting that French writers who depicted the "vices of society" were utilising terms beyond the experience of English readers, however good their academic French. Thus with the word Boche, which Barrère rendered as a "rake" (in the moral sense). The OED now offers the synonym rascal, and suggests it derives from a conflation of caboche ("head", which is cognate with "cabbage"), and Alboche (corrupted from allemand).

So Barrère had made the term accessible for English students of French literature. It took the popular press of the First World War to make it current in English. As early as September 1914, the Daily Express was relating how:
Monsieur had better come under cover. The ‘Bosches’ are still firing this way.
Notice theuse of an alternate spelling, as copied by Wollaston in print, and the quotation marks to reinforce the unfamiliarity of the term.

Very quickly, though, the spelling settled down as Boche. Ernest Andrew Ewart (who wrote dispatches for the Westminster Gazette under the pen-name "Boyd Cable") describes a moment in the trenches of 1916:
Courtenay stopped near a group of men, and telling the sergeant to wait there a moment, moved on and left him. A puff of cold wet wind blew over the parapet, and the sergeant wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "Some odorous," he commented to a mud-caked private hunkered down on his heels on the fire-step with his back against the trench wall. "Does, the Boche run a glue factory or a fertilizer works around here?"

"The last about fits it," said the private grimly. "They made an attack here about a week back, and there's a tidy few fertilizin' out there now -- to say nothin' of some of ours we can't get in."
Later in the War, it came to refer more to German aircraft: and again we find this from "Boyd Cable":
A Boche ... proceeded to drop bombs all over the place.
Churchill himself seems invariably to use use the spelling of Boche:
All Europe, if [Hitler] has his way, will be reduced to one uniform Boche-land.
That's from 1940, and , perhaps significantly from a speech aimed at "the French people". By which time, for most Britons, the term was already dated. "Hun" (Rudyard Kipling's insult-term of choice) had become preferred.

Virgin birth?

Not entirely relevant here, perhaps (but fun all the same) is to wonder if Kipling had less to do with the change in usage than Christabel Russell.

This starts with the marriage of John Hugo Russell (known as "Stilts" -- because of his height) and Christabel (née Hart) in 1918. In April 1922 "Stilts" sued for divorce, on the grounds of his wife's adultery. Since the doings (and undoings) of the British aristos are mainly for entertainment purposes, here is Time magazine summarising the action:
... baby Geoffrey ... was born in October 1921. Soon after Geoffrey's birth, John Russell filed for divorce charging that the baby could not possibly be his. He claimed that he and his wife had agreed before the wedding to lead separate lives and leave the marriage unconsummated.

Christabel Russell admitted that she had never had full intercourse with her husband. But she insisted that she had not had sex with any other man either. Her proof: after learning that she was pregnant, she had undergone a medical examination. Doctors testified that she was still technically a virgin; her hymen had been only partly perforated. How then had the baby been conceived? During a night of "Hunnish" behavior ten months before Geoffrey's birth, she testified, when her husband tried to force her to have intercourse, but succeeded only in an incomplete act. He flatly denied any such behavior occurred.

One divorce trial ended without a decision, but a second in 1923 explored the details again. Christabel, her husband charged, had cavorted across the Continent, writing home about "slim, silky Argentines" and "marcel-waved" Italians who courted, wined and dined her. She still insisted that they had not slept with her; medical experts conceded that her story of Geoffrey's conception might be true. A ten-month gestation was not unknown, they said. Impregnation without penetration, though rare, was possible. Still, the jury in the second divorce trial found her guilty of adultery with an unnamed man.
Christabel appealed. It went to the House of Lords. She won. The child was legitimate. John did not get his divorce until 1935, when he succeeded to the title of Baron Ampthill.

The various court proceedings created considerable sensation, not least over precisely what Christabel described as her husband's "Hunnish practices".

The rest of the Ampthill story had to wait until after John's death in 1973. The House of Lords then had to decide between two claimants for the title.


Woolaston's review of the HBO/BBC programme was valid. Even better on this occasion, to Malcolm's taste, was that by Andrew Billen in The Times:
This critique would, however, have been more effective if Into the Storm had been less in love with Churchill’s rhetoric itself. But its telling of 1939-45 was a K-Tel best-of anthology of his famous speeches, many of which we saw him compose out loud, working on the rhythm and syntax more than the meaning. The possibility that Churchill might have been a great commander and diplomat receded behind Churchill the orator. Appropriately, after he has lost the election, he is shown moved by a play by Noel Coward, another performer who thought in aphorisms. At the end, the house stands to a man to applaud the “saviour of our nation”. By now his appeal, this final episode unwittingly suggests, was to middle-class theatre lovers.

Brendan Gleeson, his face alternately ancient and babylike, was a worthy, perhaps superior, successor to Albert Finney who played Churchill in The Gathering Storm seven years ago, and Janet McTeer was a superb, unamused Clemmie. But this glossy, jokey 90-minute romp though our finest hour could not be taken seriously either as history or biography. Churchill might have liked it but that is because the director Thaddeus O’Sullivan had turned his life into an Alexander Korda biopic.
Sphere: Related Content

No comments:

Subscribe with Bloglines International Affairs Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Add to Technorati Favorites