This is part of the 'English Words in War-Time' blog series. Please visit the blog site for more information, upcoming posts and an archive of previous posts.
How to be “knuts” for war: refashioning male identity in WW1
As previous posts on this site have explored, fashion – and war – could produce some unlikely conjunctions. The fashionable flapper of 1915 might be recognised by her cartridge buttons or the silken bayonet belt she might choose to wear, perhaps in Joffre blue. The appeal of fashion in Edwardian Britain was not, however, a purely female preserve. The knut — and the conflicts he could present in terms of legitimatised forms of male identity – offers another site of change for words in war time..
When WW1 began, the knut or nut (both spellings are in use) remained undefined in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘He has come too late for Dr. Murray’, a correspondent to the Times regretted (‘Dr. Murray’ referred to James Murray, editor-in chief of the OED). Its topicality was, however, undoubted. The most recent incarnation of a well-established pattern of male display, the knut was a descendant of the dandy and the beau, the macaroni and the toff. Favoured by young unmarried men, and -in comparison with the ‘toff’ markedly democratised (even a clerk might be ‘knut’ on his day off) — he could be recognised by his hat (floppy or silk), pastel gloves, bright socks, and indolent demeanour. In terms of langauge, the knut was the slang of the moment, as the Times commented in December 1913:
No self-respecting youth can use the slang of his uncle …. He cannot guess that his uncle, when he uses the word “toff,” remembers the time when he himself was one, just as he will remember the time when he was a “nut.”
Basil Hallam’s music-hall turn as Gilbert the Filbert, the ‘knut with a capital K’ — in the revue ‘The Passing Show’ (which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 1914)– only served to enhance the popularity – and prevalence — of the knut in pre-war days. As Hallam’s lyrics stressed, the knut was ‘the pride of Piccadilly’, engaged in nothing more arduous than ‘counting his ties’.
The declaration of war in August of that year nevertheless brought a new set of images of male identity into prominence. Recruiting posters which urged (male) addressees to ‘play the man’ did not have the knut in mind. The knut’s brightly coloured clothing symbolised an ostentatious freedom from utilitarian constraint — a form of conspicuous (and leisured) consumption in which the performance of identity was very different. Such meanings could, in themselves, swiftly seem démodé. Young men who did not volunteer were liable to be proscribed as slackers and shirkers, epithets which took on pointed associations of cowardice or the deliberate avoidance of conflict in contemporary discourse.
The semantic fortunes of the knut were, perhaps predictably, to be caught up in similar processes. If the fickleness of fashion is well-known, it would have particular force in this context.
‘The civilian “nut,” wearing his “so-called Panama beside the so-called sea,” brilliant in socks, tie, and handkerchief is out of favour just now’
states an article in the Times in 1915. It probed this perceptible shift in sense. Men who were by the front in Brighton, rather than at the front, it added, deservedly attracted suspicion:
‘A Sam Broowne belt, or, failing that, brass buttons and badges, alone attract the female eye and heart’.
Rather than suggesting ‘the pride of Piccadilly’, the knut could evoke an increasingly transgressive sense of hedonism, alongside a shameful lack of participation in the war effort. Language, here, too, was on the move. Gilbert the Filbert, as Punch noted in 1918, was surely a type of the Cuthbert – here in yet another term for the shirker who desired not to fight. Hallam, in an instance where art and life converged too closely, would be given a white feather at the stage door (he later volunteered, being killed at the Somme). The role of the nut as a new-found synonym for ‘shirker’ was plain.. As the Evening News likewise observed, here in March 1915, the nut might well serve as a prompt for the introduction of conscription. The conjunction of the knut with the ‘loafer’ was telling. The raffish charm of the pre-war knut had, in popular perception, entirely disappeared.
The “nuts” – sons of well-to-do people with no occupation, and loafers and criminals of a lower class who live by their wits, are a greater difficulty. They form the class to which compulsion could best be supplied; but, in the absence of a National Register, it is not easy to suggest a method of directing a systematic campaign against them.
Images of regulative masculinity had, in essence, been redefined by war. The knut as a locus of fashionable affection and ambition was rendered increasingly unacceptable. As the Times likewise mused, if, two years into the war, there was a ‘season’, the nut no longer played a part. No ‘systematic campaign’ had been necessary. A sense of shibboleth and stigma alike had served to drive the knut as a symbol of leisure and pleasure underground. As the Daily Express noted in 1915, the symbols of the knut — at least in any self-respecting young man — had now been shed:
There are no young men of leisure yawning in the club windows. The youth who wore lavender gloves in Bond-street last June goes tearing by you now at the wheel of a grey motor-car (the service colour). His khaki cap sits jauntily on the back of his head.
The escalated downshifting of the term is adroitly picked up in contemporary advertising for shoes in Punch where the ‘esplanade nut’ evokes a sense of the synthetic as well as the socially unacceptable:
Looks Like Hand-made. ‘In black, yes,” said one man, “I grant you may get a decent-looking ready-made shoe. But in brown — never. They all smell of the esplanade nut, somehow’
Even Gilbert the Filbert gained some new verses, in recognition of the changes that were now required. The knut, this suggested, was in need of some determined semantic engineering.The new verses offered redefinition through action not clothing, and a shared purpose in ‘doing one’s bit’ in war. ‘Smiles and sniggers’ were thereby to be brought to end. The nut was to be camouflaged in khaki:
“You would know him in the old days by his smooth and well-oiled locks,
By his many-coloured ties and his many-coloured socks,
By his walk and by his talk, by the figure he would cut,
Quite a masher and a dasher was the man we call the K-nut.
Now he’s fighting, and he’s striking such a blow in Britain’s cause
That has stopped out smiles and sniggers, that has made the nation pause.
And if he be spared to come back to his ordinary rut,
There’s a cheer and a ‘God bless you’ for the man we call the K-nut’.
A range of other accounts document transformative processes similar in kind. The nut, these stressed, could indeed be rehabilitated.
‘In these times, when all of us, or nearly all of us, are in the Army or in the Sister Service, one hears of most wonderful progress, astonishing advances in rank, truly most marvellous. The young “nut” who was a junior in the office, is now a full lieutenant (six months service), and another, little his senior, not a captain, with very little more service than the first.’ Times Feb 22 1916.
Basil Hallam’s emblematic “nuttiness” — while in khaki — offered a particualry interesting form. As Charles Carrington notes, the fashionable appeal of the nut might be translated into nunaces of the uniform one wore, even if this was formally disfavoured:
I heard him sing [Gilbert the Filbert] once during an air-raid at a camp concert in France, wearing clothes which made me sick with envy. He had just come off duty and was, so to speak, in khaki service-dress uniform but with a suit of so exquisite a cut and a colour-scheme so delicately varied from the official drab, that his clothes, somehow, did not resemble mine. He wore a hunting stock in a shade of pearl-grey, instead of a collar-and-tie, dove-coloured riding breeches, yellow ‘chammy’ gloves, puttees that were almost lemon-coloured and a floppy cap arranged over one ear. Good colonels strove to prevent the likes of me from imitating the likes of him. Though the other ranks could not vary their coloration as completely as the officers they could do a good deal with floppy hats.
It was, as other writers record, the turn of a shoe, or the colour of a sock, which might give such erstwhile identities away:
After washing hands and face in a saucepan minus handle, which he has balanced on an empty petrol-can, he carefully brushes his hair with an old nail-brush, using the window of the car, in which he has slept, as a looking-glass. From the backward sweep he gives to his somewhat long locks, and judging by his well-cut and clean, but dull, brogue shoes, it is clear that he has once been a “knut,” in spite of his oil-stained khaki service jacket and trousers.
This derives from a report from the Front, recorded in October 1914 ‘communicated by an eye-witness present with General Headquarters …and issued by the Press Bureau.’ ‘Tell — not to be a fool. It is just life here and one which appeals to a genuine knut’, another letter from the front exhorted in 1915.
At the Front, the knut could, given the mutability of slang, also assume assume other forms. ‘The night before last the Knuts came to see us’, Sir Archibald Home records in his diary, written while at the front (in the area near the Somme). The knuts in question included Sir John French. The Evening News provides a similar example in 1915, referring to the ‘Nuts’ or otherwise ‘the distinguished gathering on the stage, consisting of admirals and other high naval officers, generals and other military officers’.If the lavender gloves of pre-war days had lost their cachet, other forms of male display – in which one might be decorated by the medals, badges, and insignia of military rank – had an undeniable (and equally visible) status. Translated to military contexts, the diction of the nut thereby found a new lease of life.
The relevant section of the Oxford English Dictionary (1str edn) was publihsed in 1901 (for knut) and 1907 (for nut). Entries for both were added in 1933, with the sense ‘A fashionable or showy young man’. It use in war-time slang for men with military decorations is not recorded.
For the extended lyrics of ‘Gilbert the Filbert’, see Laura Ugolini, Men and Menswear: Sartorial Consumption in Britain 1880-1939 (Ashgate, 2007): p.73.