The Nazis' secret wartime weapon: very big words

'I looked up "thesaurus" in the thesaurus. It said: "Don't mess about with the system, fat boy"'
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I used to really respect and be in awe of columnists in newspapers and magazines who used loads of long, abstruse words, words such as "lambent", "harmonial", "heuristic", "autophagous" and "dystopian". I thought they were dead clever and educated, these people. My writings, by contrast, mainly used words such as "bum", "dog", "bum" again and "otter".

I used to really respect and be in awe of columnists in newspapers and magazines who used loads of long, abstruse words, words such as "lambent", "harmonial", "heuristic", "autophagous" and "dystopian". I thought they were dead clever and educated, these people. My writings, by contrast, mainly used words such as "bum", "dog", "bum" again and "otter".

Now, however, to my shock I've found out that there exists a secret book, known only to certain writers, called Roget's Thesaurus, and in this book, it's like they've got a different word for everything! Here's an example: "Bum: (noun) Behind, buttocks, hindquarters, posterior, rump, seat..."

Well, I think that's cheating, using a book like that, I really do! Please be assured, dear readers, that I would never be so calumniotic an escribulator as to utilisationise such a meretriciatric contrivulance.

Later, with a larkish sense of mischief and giggling to myself, I got out the thesaurus and looked up "thesaurus" in the thesaurus. But when I turned to the page where it should have been, it simply said, in big black frightening letters: "Don't piss about with the system, fat boy! We know where you live and we know what you get up to on Thursdays in Kentish Town..." I slammed the book shut and waited for my heart to stop pounding.

However, I was still intrigued by this mysterious volume, and I went on to search out something of its history. Through diligent research I have discovered that the thesaurus was actually a German invention, devised in 1932 by Heinrich Roget, a word scientist working for the Nazis. As a result of his efforts at that time, German writing - plays, poems, songs and newspaper columns - was full of exciting, complicated words, while, by contrast, British writing was a very poor thing, a feeble thing indeed. Take this example of a popular song of the time: "Me no like sprouts, me no like, me no like, me no like a lot, sprouts." (Noël Coward, 1933). Or one of Churchill's early wartime speeches, in which he wiffled: "Hitler, bad bum man. If Hitler man come we fight them in some places and then we fight them in some other places and we will never not fight them in those places."

Obviously, wartime morale, which was low anyway, was not inspired by such insipid speechifying. The British authorities knew they had to get their hands on this secret book. Luckily, late in 1940, a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Jillypan, cruising the north Atlantic, came upon a German U-boat on the surface. It was not surprising, really: the captain was sending a report on Allied merchant shipping, using his thesaurus to construct iambic pentameters utilising much flowery language and abstruse references to Norse marine gods, and thus they had been bobbing on top of the ocean for close to eight hours.

The Royal Navy captured the submarine, and before the captain could destroy the precious thesaurus, the brave British mariners seized that, too. The book was immediately flown to London and within days the vocabulary of the nation was on the up. As a headline in the News of the World put it at the time: "Exposition of ulterior tome actuates expansion of linguistic adroitness in national discourse".

Now Hollywood is planning to make a movie of this event, and, of course, it is US sailors rather than British who are to be the heroes of the piece. This brings to mind the fuss over the recent movie U-571, in which the Americans seem to claim that they captured the vital Enigma coding machine from the Germans, when in fact, of course, it was British sailors who did the deed.

Now what impressed me most about this affair was the modest, quietly courageous, self-deprecating and charming attitude of Lieutenant David Balme, who actually captured the Enigma machine, and other officers and men of HMS Bulldog and HMS Aubretia when I've seen them interviewed on television - and their humorous but absolute refusal to be drawn into any kind of outraged anti-American posturing for the sake of media consumption. It was a wonderful contrast to the sickening daily spectacle of politicians of both the Government and the Opposition pretending with disgusting insincerity to get into a lather of indignation over some bollocks or other, whether it was élitism, education, crime, asylum-seekers, the health service or indeed U-571 - not because they genuinely believed what they were saying but because they thought it would play well with the voters and the press.

They should remember that we British are at our absolute best when we are humorous, unassuming and just get on with the job with diffident dignity and true conviction, rather than preening and pouting with fake conviction. I for one find that kind of behaviour far more admirationalistic.

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