Thursday, 15 November 2012

Just chatting

Clare, who's researching World War One topics, just drew my attention to this article: Of Lice and Men: Trench Fever and Trench Life in the A.I.F. by Dr. M. Geoffrey Miller.

It's a good article in itself, but one that also leads into a wealth of superb material. Up one level, and you get to The Medical Front, a compendium of texts on "all medical aspects, military and civilian, of the Great War". And this is just part of the GWDPA: the Great War Primary Document Archive, whose intention is "to present in one location both primary and relevant secondary documents between 1890-1930".

However, returning to Of Lice and Men, one point of interest was the reference to "chats" and "chatting" ...
There are three varieties of lice; head lice, or 'nits', (pediculus capitis), pubic lice, or 'crabs', (Phthirius pubis), and body lice, or 'chats' (pediculus corporis)
Accordingly the soldiers had to attempt to remove the lice as best they could. This removal, a procedure known as "chatting up" was usually by hand, picking out the lice from the clothes, or with the flame from lighted candles run up and down the seams of the clothes. (This was the origin of the verb "to chat" as the soldiers made the removal of their lice into a social event).
... and part of this rang etymological alarm bells with us both.

"Chat" for "louse" is fine. I suspected it might be Anglo-Indian, but it turns out not:
1699 B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew, Chatts, lice.
1725 in New Canting Dict.
1819 J. H. Vaux New Vocab. Flash Lang. in Mem., Chats, lice.
- Oxford English Dictionary
"Chatting up" checks out likewise, as a couple of contemporary references show:
Then they gave us hot water and soap and a clean towel, and told us to go to it. This was an advancing signal-corps company that was chatting up after the retreating Boche.
- The Literary Digest, Volume 59, page 42, 1918
"Chatting-up," searching for " them " by divesting oneself of tunic, shirt and even breeches. This informal parade used to take place frequently among the men in the trenches during the summer months.
- The Athenaeum, 1919 
But the statement that this is the origin of the verb "to chat" is completely untrue. "Chat" goes back to Middle English in a couple of similar obsolete senses, but even the modern sense dates back to the 1500s.
3. intr. To talk in a light and informal manner; to converse familiarly and pleasantly.
1551 R. Robinson tr. T. More Vtopia sig. ✠viiv, I muste commen with my wife, chatte with my chyldren, and talke wyth my seruantes.
- Oxford English Dictionary
"Chatting up" in the delousing sense, by the way, has no connection with the modern sense of "flirting with". The OED's first citation for this sense is much later, and seems to be a modern development, first cited to the 1960s, on an obsolete meaning of "chat" equivalent to "chat up".
1916  C. J. Dennis, Songs Sentimental Bloke 19, I tried to chat 'er, like you'd make a start Wiv any tart.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Ray

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