War and Social Upheaval: National Slang

Figure 1.--.

Many countries developed slang terms for soldiers and people from other countries. Often these terms were derogatory. The most famous is probably, the French word for the Germans--"le boche". An assessmet of the drogatory French word for the Germans, "le boche", is an interesting study of French-German relations during the 19th and 20th century. The word, once so common, is no longer heard in France. As far as we can determine, the Germans had no comparative derogatory term for the French--although their allies the English did. Some of these terms were more positive, especially the term widely used for the Americans--"Yanks".


I'm not sure what the American called the Germans in World War I. In World War II, the term "Krauts" became common, referring to sauerkraut which was a popular food in Germany. Americans called their own soldiers "doughboys". This apparently was a disapiraging term used by the calvary to describe the infantry used as early as the Mexican American War (1845-46). Only in World War I was it widely used by the general public to describe soldiers. It appears to have related to the starchy diet of the soldiers and how they cooked it. Meals for American soldiers in World War I were often doughy flour and rice concoctions that were either baked in the embers of a camp fire or perhaps even shaped around a bayonet and cooked over the flames. There are, however, other explanations and no one has a really definitive answer. It seems to have been a term developed by the soldiers themselves. They used their letters home and their diaries. Volunteers, draftees, and national guardsmen of every specialty just began referring to themselves as Doughboys. Their overseas newspaper, The Stars & Stripes also adopted the term. Some the folks back home were also using it.


Interestingly, while the Germans did not have a deogatory term for the French, their allies the English did. The English called the French "frogs". I'm not sure when this term first appeared, presumably earlier when the English viewed the French as enemies and the Germans (Prussians) as friends. (German Kaiser Wilhelm II played a major role in changing this perception, as did Queen Alexandra.) I'm also not sure about the derivation of the appelage "frog", perhaps it was related to all the nasal pronunciations in the French language. Another explaanation is that the term was due to the fact that the French eat frog legs--which many English found distasteful. A French reader writes, "I supose we should be glad they didn't call us snails. Then again, given the state of English cooking, they should be glad we didn't come up with a comparable term." The French called Americans "Amerloques" but this was not derogatory. Both the English and French called the Americans "Yanks"--much to the consternation of soldiers from the southern states. English World War propaganda referred to the German as "Huns", but I'm not sure what the popular slang term was. In World Wa II, "Jerry" bcame the common slang term, from the jery cans (gas/petrol) containers used by the German Army. I'm not sure yet what the aculterm was in German.


The common word the French used for the Germans was "le boche". This meant the German enemy and was the derogatoy term the French used for the Germans. Le Boche is, according to a encyclopaedia, a French informal short form of "Alboche" meaning "Allemand" (German). I'm not sure when the term first appeared. Presumably it was in use by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), perhaps earlier. One importnat word is what the French called their own soldiers-- " poilus ". It is a respectable term in France to call the soldiers of World War I. They spent a great deal of time in the trenches in mud and very unsanitary conditiins. So these soldiers looked rough and dischelved and were unshaved. The word "poilu" means hairy in French. A French reader writes, "All our poilu are now dead, except a very few number. When we speak of the poilu it is always with much respect." Another term used about the World War I soldiers is " Les gueules cassées ". This means the soldiers with serious facial injuries. These injuries were caused by the German poison gas attacks. Many of these unfortunate soldiers lost their ears, nose, lips and more.


As far as we can determine, the Germans had no comparative derogatory term like "le boche" for the French. You would think that given the intensiy of feeling between the two countries, that the Germans would also have a derisive term. That was the general pattern among neighboring countries in the 19th and early 20th century. I'm not sure what word the Germans used for the French. The term the Germans usually used appears to have been "Franzmänner", meaning French people. This was the term used by Remarque in Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)--the most famous epic novel emerging from the War on the Western Front. "Franzmänner" was not really pejorative, it was used rather in literature and probably by the army to describe French soldiers, but not commonly by the people. One report suggests that the Germans called the English "Tommies". I knew the English called their own soldiers "Tommies, from a Kipling poem about Tommy Atlkins. I did not know that this had been picked up by the Germans. Finally the American gouvernment was called in a witty way by the Germans Onkel Sam (Uncle Sam). It was introduced in the 1812 war. In caricature the Germans called themselves "Der Deutsche Michel", a rather fat but bonnehomic farmer with a pipe and a sleeping cap. It first is mentioned in an Alsacian source of 1525. In the 19th century there were two sides of him. One one side he was a person that wants to have always his right without any patriotism, on the other hand he was an idealized figure of a German youth.

(The) Netherlands

A Dutch reader provides us some interesting information about comparable terms in the Nerherlands. The derogatory name for the Germans by the Dutch is "Mof" (or "Moffen" in plural). Now, a mof is a muff in English. German day-laborers who used to work as peat diggers along the Dutch border seemed to be wearing them. Hence the name. There also is a saying in Dutch "as silent as a mof", but I don't know if that refers to Germans or not. The founder of the Netherlands was William of Orange-Nassau, aka William the Silent, who was of German birth. Germany was called "Moffrika" during World War II. As far as I know the Germans did not use derogatory terms for the Dutch unless it was "dumme Hollaender" (stupid Hollanders). The French sometimes were called "poilus'", but that wasn't really unfriendly. I never heard anything nasty in reference to the British of Americans.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: June 23, 2001
Last updated: June 29 , 2001