But who can delve to the ultimate springs of slang? A verb which I never met before I enlisted was “to spruce.” This is almost, if not quite, a blend of “swinging the lead” and “doing a mike.” To spruce is to dodge duty or to deceive. A man who contrived to slip out of the ranks of a squad when they were performing some distasteful task would be said to “spruce off.” Or he would be denounced as a “sprucer” if he managed to arrive late for his meal and yet, by a trick, to secure a front place in the waiting queue at the canteen. A word in constant employment, “spruce”! It was new to me when I became an orderly, and for a long time I thought that it was peculiar to our unit, in the same manner that the jargon of certain boys is peculiar to certain schools. But I concluded later that it might have a remote and roundabout origin in the old army slang, “a spruce hand” at “brag”—the latter being a variant of the game of poker, and a spruce hand, apparently, one which, held by a bluffer, contained cards of no real value.
Some day these etymological mysteries must be probed. Perhaps the German professors, after the war, can usefully wreak themselves on this complex and obscure research. Meanwhile the above notes are offered not as a serious contribution to a subject so immense, but rather as a warning. The infectiousness of slang is incredible; and this gigantic inter-association of classes and clans has brought about a hitherto unheard-of levelling-down of the common speech. Accent may or may not be influenced: the vocabulary undoubtedly is. Nearly every home in the land is soon going to be invaded by many forms of army slang: the process in fact has already begun. If we were a sprightlier nation the effect might not be all to the bad. But most of our slang-mongers are not wits. “He was balmy a treat,” I heard a soldier say of another soldier who had shammed insane. That is what we are coming to: it is the tongue we shall use and likewise (I fear) the condition in which some of us will find ourselves as a result.
A BLIND MAN’S HOME-COMING
In my boyhood I had the ambition—it was one of several ambitions—to become a courier. The Morning Post advertisements of couriers who professed to be fluent in a number of languages and were at the disposal of invalid aristocrats desiring to take extensive (and expensive) trips abroad, aroused the most romantic visions in my mind. A courier’s was the life for me. I saw myself whirling all over Europe—with my distinguished invalid—in sleeping-cars de luxe. Anon we were crossing the Atlantic or lolling in punkah-induced breezes on the verandahs of Far Eastern hotels. It was a great profession, that of the experienced and successful courier.
I have never been a courier in quite this picturesque acceptation; and yet, in a humbler sense, I have perhaps (to my own surprise) earned the title. As an R.A.M.C. orderly I have more than once officiated as travelling courier—yes, and to distinguished, if far from affluent, invalids. They ought, at least, to rank as distinguished; for the reason they needed a courier was because they had given their health, or limbs, or eyesight, in defence of their country.