Keep Calm and Read On: World War II and its enduring phrases (Book Review)

Title: The Word at War: World War Two in 100 Phrases; Author: Peter Lewis & Philip Gooden; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 299

“Keep Calm and Carry On”, or its wide range of variants, parodies or even inversions, can be seen in a wide array of products – pads, mugs, mousepads, T-shirts and more, making it one of the world’s most recognized phrases. Do you know it was actually coined in 1939 for a British propaganda poster?

The Second World War may be long over, but its memories persist in global popular culture to still inspire movies and books. So does its terminology. Some is country-specific – “Dunkirk spirit” for Britain, “Day of Infamy” for the US (originally used for the Pearl Harbor attack but also in wake of 9/11), but there are more universal ones: spam, blacklist, SNAFU (and its variants), jeeps, Molotov cocktails, kamikaze, Nazi or even Hitler as an appellation for those rigidly rule-bound and so on.

All these are among a rich and varied host of acronyms, rhetoric, slogans, exhortations, slang terms and as well as abundant euphemisms, as well as some events relating to the conflict, which may have a considerable significance or continuing resonance, but they definitely have colourful histories – as recounted in this entertaining and informative book.

Authors and language historians Peter Lewis and Philip Gooden, who note that “war is commonly held to be the mother of invention where military technology is concerned”, say they hope their book “will show this to be equally true of words and phrases”.

They go beyond Britain and US to include “use and abuse of language in other combatant nations” like Nazi Germany (where the Jewish genocide was only “The Final Solution”), Mussolini’s Italy and Vichy France, though Soviet Union is a notable omission, as well as Australia whose soldiers’ earthy slang would have been interesting.

For this purpose, Lewis and Gooden, have “cherry-picked words and phrases spawned and popularised in the lead-up to the World War Two and during the conflict itself”. In 15 chapters, “organised in roughly chronological order”, they deal with among others, with the earlier World War’s legacy, the appeasement period, propaganda, wartime speeches – focussing on the differing styles of Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, service slang, national stereotypes, food and drink, and the aftermath.

Some of the entries cited may have prove to have the most unlikely connections – a feature of Harvard student life inspiring Adolf Hitler, and the role of castor oil in strengthening Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dispensation in Italy, and sheer incongruity – where else the swastika was used, and the evolution of the “V for Victory” sign.

There is also the huge irony that “Keep Calm and Carry On” – the third of a series of posters devised by the British Information Ministry – was never used, due to coming in a phase where nothing much happened on the Western Front, and people grew tired of the government’s solemn exhortations. How it achieved its present fame is a story in itself, told here.

One of the most interesting entries relates to the ubiquitous “Chad” and “Kilroy” – the most travelled Allied personnel going by their sheer presence.

The second was just a scrawl “Kilroy was here” found all over but especially outlandish inaccessible places – and reportedly deemed a showoff Allied spy by both Hitler and Stalin, but the first was a mild but innovative expression of protest for lack of creature comforts. A cartoon figure, just usually comprising a head with a large nose, and fingers clutching the fence or the wall he peered over, while the caption read: “WOT! NO..” (beer, cigarettes or whatever was lacking). One pompous officer told his men that the anyone found putting one up could expect 28 days confinement to barracks. Returning to office, he found on his desk the same sketch, asking “Wot! Only 28 days?” His reaction is not recorded.

A unique account of both the war and its language, this will interest both military history buffs as well as students of language for its insights into communicating in conflict.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



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