Infantry

I told you yesterday I’ve been enjoying some light, frothy, sunny-weather reading in the form of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1930 tale of the horror and drudgery of World War I: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

Naturally the word infantry comes up a lot, and this made me think: surely that word is related to the word infant!

And of course it is, coming from the 16th-century French infantrie, which can be traced back to the Latin infantus, meaning, as it does now, very young child. The idea behind using it to refer to soldiers is that it refers to those who are too young and inexperienced to be in the cavalry.

Which makes sense, but it’s a bit creepy and simply sad that the the word is related to young children, especially as there are so many actual child soldiers in the world, not to mention teenagers being killed at school.

I guess as the word infant is fairly formal and not so common, it doesn’t make us think of children straight away (I mean, I only made the connection this evening). That’s all just part of the distancing and dehumanisation evident in military language, to make what soldiers do seem not so horrific. I guess it’s effective, as even after the horror of the “Great War” we’re still fighting each other, though thankfully not on such a scale. We should be grateful for that, at least.

7 thoughts on “Infantry

  1. The rest of the British Army refers to the infantry as “puddle splashers”, which I suppose relates back to the point about them not being seen as mature enough…

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  2. Most of the time I spent teaching ESL in Australia was in colleges which also had translating and interpreting courses. Part of my extra duties was to create passages suitable for translation from English into the student’s other language. Over this time, I noticed that there is no real synonym for child/ren in the most general sense. Maybe for young children I can use baby/infant/toddler and for older ones I can use adolescent/teen/ager, but there’s no other way of referring to all those people together, apart from ‘kids’, which was too low register for the purpose. I could hardly write about ‘Nutrition guidelines for your offspring’.

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    • PS using the same word a small number of times wasn’t a problem, but the trick was to find a synonym or two before it got to a large number.

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    • That’s true actually. I suppose it’s because “child” is quite a general term, and there are a lot of differences between an infant, a pre-teen, and an adolescent, for example.

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