A wordy - & worldly - wander back in time

A wordy - & worldly - wander back in time

​As HRM kicks off its 20th anniversary year this month, our boss isn’t the only one taking the opportunity to look back over the years.

Birthday fever has spread to Wordsmith’s World and it’s inspired me to take a step back in time, too.

I’ve been busy investigating the origins of some well-known terms and phrases, many far older than two decades, but which we still use today.

While taking my wordy walk, I’ve discovered some date back to the First World War, meaning phrases I had assumed were relatively modern – including skive, scarper, and cushy - are actually a century old.

Interestingly, but perhaps understandably, many words from that era derive from languages other than English.

Skive, for example, is from the French word ‘eskiver’ (to dodge or avoid), and scarper from the Italian ‘escarpare’ (to run away).

Cushy, meanwhile, may have popularised by British soldiers but comes from the Urdu word for pleasure ‘kusi’.

Even ‘crummy’, it turns out, was coined by US infantrymen a century ago.

As this Radio 4 round-up says about the words we can trace back to the troops and the trenches: “The unique melting pot of men, languages and cultures forged a new kind of slang.”

And while some words such as flotilla, dud, and camouflage might have seemingly obvious and strong military overtones, the origins of one of my favourite everyday phrases – bumf* – was a bit of a surprise to me.

I’ll certainly have to think of another phrase in the future when a colleague asks me to proof some copy for them as, in the past, I have tended to ask them to send their ‘bumf over to me.

Either that or scarper as soon as I’ve called it that …

*“Nowadays this refers to large amounts of paperwork…Soldiers in WW1 often used it to ridicule the ludicrous amount of orders and unnecessary paperwork that came from their superiors, likening it to toilet paper, i.e. ‘bum-fodder’.”