Saturday, May 13, 2000

Words from war

IT is estimated that in periods of war, new words enter the lexis at double the usual rate. Considered carefully, this fact is hardly surprising. During a war, science is working at a fever-pitch to devise new weapons and services. New products are developed, new medicines and miracles are born every moment. The sizzling action of war creates new military terms, the soldiers make up their own slang, and slang is at all times a prolific contributor to language. During World War II the number of words that entered the lexicon was more than 6,000.

Jeep was also taken into the language at that time. During the course of the war, the American government ordered the manufacture of a ‘General Purpose’, four-wheel, sturdy military car. The vehicle was first called GP or jeepie after its initials and later became jeep. There is a story behind the name jeep as well. The American GIs loved the comic strip ‘Popeye’. In this strip there is a strange, bouncy beast called Eugene the Jeep and there being an obvious similarity in sound, the jeep was here to stay. After the war, in civilian life too, the name continued. GI itself has an interesting background. During the war, every bit of the soldier’s kit was stamped GI for ‘Government Issue.’ Later, the soldiers humourously applied the initials to themselves and they stuck.

  Fifth column and quisling did not become as popular as jeep did. A quisling is a traitor who gives himself over as a tool to the enemy. The word is based on the name of Major Vidkun Quisling who deserted his people and assumed leadership of the Norwegian Nazi party after the German invasion in 1940. Quisling falls within the category of lazy words — words which fall into disuse and are often left out of dictionaries in the process. By some quirk of usage or acceptance, jeep is an active word, while quisling is an ‘old-fashioned’ usage for collaborator. Fifth column comes up frequently vis-a-vis Indo-Pak relations. It has a dramatic origin. In the year 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, General Emilio Mola advanced upon Madrid with an army force of four columns. "The fifth column is within the city," he announced over the radio. He meant the secret sympathisers and agents working from within as spies and saboteurs.

Eatable or not, the word hand-grenade comes from the word pomegranate. The Romans called the pomegranate pomum granatum, that is, apple with seeds. The French altered it to pomegrenate which English adopted as pomegranate. From the second element in this word, the French developed the term grenade, an apt name for a shell of explosive seeds. The soldier who threw these granades became a grenadier.


The sacrifice of a normal, settled life and often of his life and limb by a soldier is referred to as a tilaanjali. The word has its origin in the rites performed at somebody’s death. The closest relative took a fistful of til and jal and while uttering the name of the departed soul, let it go. This was done to show the departed person’s release from this world and its ties. Hindi held onto the idea of letting go of something dear and the present usage emerged; Bengali adopted it as a term for farewell; Marathi as a term for desertion.

— Deepti