The (French) language of war


French is one of the major sources of vocabulary in the English language. From the Norman invasion to nineteenth century European diplomacy, French words have percolated into English and have sometimes been swallowed whole with little or no attempt to Anglicize terms or phrases.

One area of language is particularly heavily dependant on French loan words – the language of war.

The impact of Norman dominance was immediately seen as Norman French words poured into common use and displaced Anglo-Saxon alternatives. As a result, by the 14th century you could describe whole conflicts in purely French derived words:

The commander sought to conquer the castle with a force of archers. The defenders were heavily armoured and tried to defy the assault. The attackers laid siege to the enemy fortress and brought engines of war to destroy the tower. A traitor in the garrison opened the portcullis to the enemy and the battle was soon over. The castle was conquered with the chieftain victorious.

The immediate impact of Norman domination can be seen by the first written records of certain words in English. The word ‘castle’ is first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in approximately 1075, just as William I was securing his new English lands by erecting a string of defensive towers. By contrast, the more sophisticated ‘fortress’ is first recorded in the 14th century.

The protracted conflict between England and France that made up the Hundred Years’ War between 1337 and 1453 ensured a whole new batch of words made their way into English between the mid-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By 1500, the following passage could be created from words introduced in the previous 160 years:

The captain took his band to scout and disarm the guard that safeguarded the impregnable moat. The defensive position ensured the army and artillery could resist being dislodged. 

The dominance of French land forces in Europe, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries was fully demonstrated by the vast array of precise military terms that were directly imported from French. By the mid-eighteenth century some of the most identifiable units and ranks in the British Army had French names – aide-de-camps, brigadiers, cadets, commandants, corps, dragoons, grenadiers, marines, and musketeers.

And what would an officer be without his commission, uniform or epaulettes or the rank and file conscript with out his regiment, rations or canteen?  

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the lexicographical flow continued with aeroplanes, depots, espionage, logistics, mobilize, parachute, reconnaissance and strategy. Militarism itself was a later loan word from French and many older words, such as bomb, turret and pilot would assume new and terrifying meanings in the First World War.

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