Black humour in war

Apr 27, 2015

Even heroes and villains can be taken not so seriously in war. The cold footer and slacker are basic enough terms but deep thinker meaning ‘a person who enlisted late in the course of the war’ has that touch of amused mockery. Knut, meaning ‘a self-important person’, is definitely a joke. It is thought to have come from the popular music-hall song Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Knuts (1914) in which knut is a jocular variant of nut. This was parodied and used as a marching song.

The Military Cross abbreviated to MC becomes the Maconachie cross and the actual medal the Maconochie Medal. Maconochie was the maker of the tinned stew of meat and vegetables that the soldiers ate. It became a colloquialism for ‘the stomach’ as in hit in the maconochie.

Euphemisms are common for death and slaughter, and the war situation breeds its own set. There is the transfer from cricket where the batsmen are skittled, that is, knocked out one after the other like a set of skittles, to the war where a man can be skittled, that is, killed. To be hung on the wire or on the old barbed wire was to be absent and unaccounted for. To say that someone had chucked it up was a nonchalant way of saying that they had died. To say that he had been stonkered was to say that he had been killed.

A stoush was Australian and New Zealand slang for ‘a fight’, part of the jargon of the Larrikins, the street gang of the 1890s. The big stoush was the war and a stunt was a battle. These were the verbal ways of avoiding a grim reality.

And finally there was the blackest of black humour, the laughter that skitters over horror. These expressions are hard for us to fully understand at this distance. They are the verbal equivalent of the faded sepia photos of men with expressions that are hard to read. But in their moment of creation they would have provided a powerful release. Anzac soup is, we read in Digger Dialects, ‘shell-hole water polluted by a corpse’. Pause for a moment to think about that and to consider the apparently light-hearted reference and you can see the distance between the term  and its meaning. Other examples are go into cold storage to be killed in the freezing winter of 1916, rest camp acemetery, shooting gallery the front line, body-snatcher a stretcher bearer, six-bob-a-day tourist an Australian soldier in World War I (from the daily rate of pay of six shillings).

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