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Skive and camouflage: an OED Appeals update

The original entries for skive and camouflage in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gave the impression that these words arose in the context of WWI; in the revised entries, that story has become more complicated, thanks to evidence supplied by the OED’s readers. In order to tell the full history of the English lexicon, the OED famously aims to provide the earliest record of every word’s use. The dictionary’s researchers routinely scour the citations gathered by the project throughout its history, as well as searching a plethora of electronic databases, and occasionally issuing Appeals to the general public.

As part of the special revision of entries relating to the First World War, a dozen Appeals were posted seeking earlier evidence for a small subset of the words thought to have entered the English vocabulary during that period. Nine of the twelve Appeals yielded results which were ultimately included in the OED’s revised entries, ranging from a one-day antedating (earlier example), of conchie (meaning ‘a conscientious objector’) and a two-week antedating of shell shock to antedatings by more than three decades of the words camouflage and skive.

The earlier evidence found for camouflage and skive dates those words to the 1880s. This raises an interesting question: if they arose in the 19th century, can we still consider them to be part of the vocabulary of the First World War?

Camouflage

Camouflage was defined in the second edition of the OED (1989) as ‘the disguising of any objects used in war, such as camps, guns, ships, by means of paint, smoke-screens, shrubbery, etc., in such a way as to conceal it from the enemy,’ with the first example dating from 1917. This military use of the word was the first one to become familiar in English. A frequent Appeals contributor known to us as ‘Bryn’ provided earlier evidence for the military use, dating from 1915:

Headquarters visited Amiens to visit French…GOC Brig and Div and Gen. Morland…methods of French confluage.

1915 War Diary, 7th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, 13 Aug. (Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records: X550/8/1)

This example is taken from a manuscript war diary; the text of the quotation, which describes camouflage as something being introduced by the French, and the misspelling of the word, both suggest that the concept and word alike were new to the writer. This chronology is supported by historical facts, since the first military camouflage unit was established by the French in 1915.

What are we to make, then, of this 1885 example, with a slightly different spelling, provided by the author Ammon Shea:

He was also master in the art of camoufflage or disguise, his face being without age and readily changed to any style of physiognomy.

1885 translation of F. Du Boisgobey Old Age of Lecoq vii

This is unquestionably the same word, but the meaning is slightly different. In this case, the text is a translation of a French original, and refers to a human disguise. The word seems to have been first recorded in French at about the same time. The word appeared in English much earlier than the First World War, but its use was isolated and rare, as this chart of frequency shows (note that relative usage soared during the First World War but peaked in the Second):

Frequency, via Google ngram viewer.

Thus, although some English speakers would have encountered the word camouflage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there can be little doubt that the military use arising in WWI was the primary vector for the absorption of the word camouflage into English.

Skive

An even more surprising result came from the Appeal for skive v.3. OED records three distinct verbs spelled skive. The first is of Old Norse origin and relates to leather working; the second is a dialectal word of uncertain origin meaning ‘to dart’; the third was described in the original OED entry as originating in military slang, with the definition ‘to evade a duty; to shirk’, thought to have arisen as an alteration of the French word esquiver, meaning ‘escape, avoid, get out of’. The earliest evidence found was from 1919, and there was a tempting logic to the idea that a British slang term arose out of conversation between British and French forces in the field. An Appeal was issued in the hopes that evidence would be found substantiating this connection, but the results actually complicated the picture, rather than clarifying it.

Appeals contributor ‘Bryn’ supplied an intriguing example from 1918, in a letter to the Notre Dame Scholastic (a student publication of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana) from Charles Grimes, a former student who was serving in the war. Referring to the wartime campus, he wrote ‘It must be strange for the boys to realize that “skiving” is not tolerated, that absence from camp or campus without permission is plain and simple A.W.O.L.’ Grimes, an American, appears at first glance to be using the new military slang term, but in fact, skive was already a well-established slang term at Notre Dame. Searching through the archives of the Scholastic, we found examples of skive from 1885 and skiver from 1884, with reference to students who left campus without permission, or shirked their duties by doing so.

Is it possible, then, that British troops picked up the slang term skive from American doughboys fresh from college, rather than from French soldiers? Unfortunately, chronology alone can’t answer that question, and it isn’t clear whether there was actually continuity between the college slang and the military slang. As of the deadline for this June’s update to the OED, the first known example of the military slang use remained a glossarial quotation from 1919, in the waning days of the war, giving no further context:

‘To skive’, to dodge a fatigue.

1919 Athenæum 1 Aug., p. 695/1

But that’s not the end of the story of skive. The indefatigable ‘Bryn’ continued to search for evidence, and recently sent us one further quotation, demonstrating that skive was in use amongst British nearly 20 years earlier, during the Boer War in 1900:

If a man goes to see the doctor…he tells them they are ‘skiving’, or trying to throw their duty on their comrades.

1900 Sheffield & Rotherham Independent 14 Sept., p. 7/5

We now know that at least some British soldiers were using the word skive in 1900, and that some American college students were using it in the 1880s. Does that mean it is no longer a word from the First World War? As was the case with camouflage, when we take into account the overall frequency of the word in English, the answer is emphatically that it is.

Relative frequency over time, from google ngram viewer. (Note that some apparent earlier evidence is likely for other words spelled the same way.)

Relatively speaking, skive’s isolated pre-WWI uses are marginal; the catalyst which launched this word into general British use was clearly the First World War, when an unprecedented number of young men from every stratum of society left their homes behind and forged a new, shared vocabulary with their peers from around the nation and around the world.

There is no single narrative to explain how new words are adopted into mainstream usage. Some enter the core vocabulary almost immediately, while others subsist at the margins of the lexicon for decades or even centuries before entering general use. The First World War had a profound impact on the English language, and it wasn’t limited to the words and phrases which were actually coined in those years.

Visit the OED’s First World War Centenary hub

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