Friday, April 5, 2013

Rudyard Kipling, Language Change and the Case of "Gentlemen-Rankers"

[in progress, I just cant get this right]

This is a post about a particular poem by Rudyard Kipling which is the origin of about 14 very recognizable idioms in the English language, yet is also, on its own, somewhat incomprehensible to a modern reader.

Every once in a while I come across the source of a commonly known idiom or saying in its original form or context, and it is usually an amusing surprise. Maybe I knew it came from that (whatever that is, book, play, short story) and maybe I had just forgotten. But then all of a sudden there it is and it is all the more amusing because it is in situ, in its place.

For example, it turns out that "its Greek to me" is a throw-away line from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Wm. Shakespeare in which a fellow conspirator tells Brutus what happened at the Senate that day. Someone was speaking from Greece. What did he say, asked Brutus. I have no idea, said the conspirator, it was Greek to me.

So in a typical Internet binge that covered the usual related topics of philosophy, optics, cosmology and the concept of echelon in military service (e.g. company, regiment, brigade, division, corps, etc), I came across a poem by Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936) where about 26% of the 56 lines are immediately recognizable. Not only are they recognizable, but they are used individually, so its not just one turn of phrase out in the real world, its something like 14 of them, each standing on its own. (Note: "standing on its own" is a good example of an idiom in modern use).

Here is a stanza from the poem in question, called "Gentlemen Rankers"

               We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
                       We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
               And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
                       God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
               Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
                       Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
               And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
                      And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.

I had not realized until now that Rudyard Kipling lived in the 20th century.    He died right before the start of World War 2 in 1936. He was born in Mumbai to British parents in the year our Civil War ended (e.g. 1865). 

And yet the language of his poems seem much more archaic, or at least filled with unrecognizable idiom, then your average late 19th century essay or poem.   For example, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven was first published in 1845, or 20 years before Kipling was even born, and yet The Raven is very readable today with very few archaic uses that are a problem.   Well, as they say, the US and England are separated by a common language, and apparently this is even more so when you use a lot of idiom and slang.

This fabulous off-center photograph of Kipling is throwing off the symmetry of my blog.  Stop that!

Here is a partial list of such phrases: run his own six horses, and faith he went, he held the ready tin, machinely crammed, sweet to, blowzy, regimental hop, out on the spree (1), cock-a-hoop, Tommy, worsted, blacks your boots, Curse of Reuben, knew the worst, and of course Gentlemen-Rankers, the very title of the poem is incomprehensible, at least to me.

A "Gentleman-Ranker" is a soldier in the British Army who is from the upper classes but finds himself an enlisted soldier (e.g. below his station in life).  This would happen because of misfortune, a mistake, or a flaw in his character.  But in any case, he has the education and manners of a member of the ruling class, but he is living the life of a common soldier.  Hence, a "gentleman" who is a "ranker".

Other idiom in this poem which are still in common use include: something less than kind, black sheep, troop, thrash, down the ladder.

Here are six lines in particular that I found very recognizable but had not realized had come from this poem: "To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned", "Its the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep", "We have done with Hope and Honor, we are lost to Love and Truth", "We're poor little lambs who've lost our way", "And we die, and none can tell Them where we died", "Damned from here to eternity".

Notice the eccentric punctuation, its not mere love and honor we are done with, no, its Love and Honor that we are talking about.

When researching this I came across the following image of Mickey, Donald and Pluto as the Three Musketeers, but some Internet wit had them labeled as "Gentlemen-Rankers", fallen from the upper classes to a mere soldier, but still showing here a certain spirit and elan.

Gentlemen-rankers of a different period?

Read the entire poem here:

The poem has been adapted as a famous drinking song, and numerous other topics in popular culture. It is practically the anthem of those who are in despair about their lives and position in life.



Rudyard Kipling on Wikipedia

Military Rank

Marian Reforms of the Roman Army:

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) on IMDB

Gunga Din (1939) on IMDB



1. A spree is an archaic term for cattle raid. Its more common usage is someone who is out on a drinking binge, or spree.

2. For those of you not up on the organization of the Roman Army after the Marian reforms of the 2nd century BC, the cohort was a standard unit of the Roman Legion, each legion had ten cohorts, each cohort was about 500 fighting men.

3. From Here to Eternity (1953) which of course we now realize is short for "Damned from here to eternity".

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