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Reading The War Illustrated (January 30th, 1915 number), I came across this passage:-

At this speed they offer a comparatively stationary mark for the German anti-aircraft guns, always known as Archibalds, which begin to burst their shells uncomfortably near them.

I wondered why that term was used. Green's Dictionary of Slang is silent on the matter. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains:-

British World War I military slang for "German anti-aircraft fire" (1915) supposedly is from black humor of airmen dodging hostile fire and thinking of the refrain of a popular music hall song, "Archibald, certainly not!"

This source quotes Ernest Weekley’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) with an alternative explanation:-

“It was at once noticed at Brooklands [where much aviation development and testing was carried out prior to 1914, and portrayed in the film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines] that in the vicinity of, or over, water or damp ground, there were disturbances in the air causing bumps or drops to these early pioneers. Some of these 'remous’ were found to be permanent, one over the Wey river, and another at the corner of the aerodrome next to the sewage-farm. Youth being fond of giving proper names to inanimate objects, the bump near the sewage-farm was called by them Archibald. As subsequently, when war broke out, the effect of having shell bursting near an aeroplane was to produce a 'remous’ reminding the Brookland trained pilots of their old friend Archibald, they called being shelled 'being Archied’ for short. Any flying-man who trained at Brooklands before the war will confirm the above statement”

It further notes that

Whether the term was picked up from the song or whether the song reinforced the chosen word is difficult to determine without more evidence

My question is, does any further evidence exist? Which of these explanations are correct? Or is there some other origin?

  • 1
    I've always assumed that the stuff was abbreviated AAC or some such, and, as such things will, it mutated into "Archy". "Archy" is the term I've mostly read in WWI histories. – Hot Licks Jan 22 '16 at 20:33
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As attested by most sources the origin is probably from a humorous reference to the very popular music hall song, "Archibald, certaily not" which became a cachtphrase in those years:

Archibald:

  • masc. proper name, from Old High German Erchanbald, literally "genuine bold," from erchan "genuine" + bald (see bold). Archie, British World War I military slang for "German anti-aircraft fire" (1915) supposedly is from black humor of airmen dodging hostile fire and thinking of the refrain of a popular music hall song, "Archibald, certainly not!"

(Etymonline)

Amyas Borton:

enter image description here Air Vice Marshal Amyas Eden Borton was a pilot and commander in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and a senior commander in the Royal Air Force during the 1920s.

  • Two months prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Borton was seconded to the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, serving as a pilot on No. 5 Squadron at Netheravon. Following the start of the War in June, Borton flew with his Squadron to France. It is recognized that while serving on the Western Front, Borton invented the slang term "archie" for anti-aircraft fire. The usage came about because Borton was probably the first pilot to shout the words "Archibald, certainly not" (from a popular music-hall song written by George Robey) as he flew between the exploding German shells.

(Wikipedia)

Archibald, Certainly Not: (Refrain from the famous song)

Chorus: “Archibald - certainly not

Get back to work, sir, like a shot

When single you could waste time spooning

But lose work now for honeymooning

Archibald - certainly not.”

From 21 Slang Terms From World War I

Archie:

  • Apparently derived from an old music hall song called Archibald, Certainly Not!, Archie was a British military slang word for German anti-aircraft fire. Its use is credited to an RAF pilot, Vice-Marshall Amyas Borton, who apparently had a habit of singing the song’s defiant chorus—“Archibald, certainly not! / Get back to work at once, sir, like a shot!”—as he flew his airplane between the exploding German shells on the Western Front.

and

From : Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.

Archie Anti-aircraft shell or gun.

General World War I. Attested in numerous sources.

  • This was largely a World War I term applied specifically to the German anti-aircraft artillery. Elting suggests that it was used at the beginning of World War II, but was replaced, at least by the American troops, with the term ‘flak’. The only suggested etymology for the term is that it came from a popular music-hall song with the refrain ‘Archibald, certainly not'(Digger Dialects, Elting).
2

Military slang is notoriously hard to pin down ("Tell me, trooper, where exactly did you first hear the opprobrious term 'f***ing spare part'?"), but this seems more elusive than most. I have found a couple of memoirs that say it was 'universal slang' by September 1915, which is pretty soon after the first guns were turned on our brave RFC boys; but how was any pilot or erk to know the origin? I myself would think a popular music-hall song more likely to gain universal currency than a peculiarity of one flying school, but I do recognise that folk etymologies exist.

2

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first edition (1937), which is usually very strong on British military slang, seems to favor the Brooklands aerodrome explanation, citing Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) as his authority, but adding a starting date for this usage of "ca. 1910–1914" (which Weekley does not).

The entire quotation from Weekley cited in the question above is actually a quotation reproduced by Weekley, from Colonel C. H. Joubert de la Ferté, I.M.S., retired; and Joubert sounds—especially in his assertion that, "Any flying-man who trained at Brooklands before the war will confirm the above statement"—very much like someone with personal knowledge of the origin of a term, who nevertheless finds himself fighting against a tide of popular support for an alternative explanation.

Joubert's account receives some unexpected support from Martin Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War (2014), which also provides the entire "music hall monologue" of "Archibald! Certainly Not." Pegler says that the music hall monologue

was made famous in 1914 by George Robey, who recited it with great emphasis on the innuendo it contained. Robey raised half a million pounds for charity during the war and received a knighthood. The term 'Archie' was adopted by the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 as vernacular for German anti-aircraft fire and was allegedly so named after a pilot named 'Biffy' Borton who sang out the chorus whenever bursts of anti-aircraft fire exploded near his machine, much to the puzzlement of his NCO observer.

But this hypothesis requires either that Colonel Joubert be mistaken when he says that the term Archibald being applied to the pressure-change phenomenon as much as four years before World War I began, or that a rather astonishing coincidence occur in the peacetime naming of Archibald and the wartime naming of Archie after an unrelated Archibald a few years later. In his glossary entry for Archie, Pegler mentions an interesting detail about the Brooklands air-training area:

Archie From 'Archibald', anti-aircraft fire. Introduced by pilots who had flown pre-war. The origin is debatable, some sources citing Archibald sewage farm near Brooklands in Surrey, which created notorious air turbulence, the same effect as the exploding shells. Other sources cite the music hall song by George Robey 'Archibald! Certainly Not', which is reproduced later in this book.

Nothing is more likely than that "Biffy" Borton—or someone like him—made the connection between the term Archie and the popular music-hall song/monologue "Archibald! Certainly Not," and made a joke of calling or singing it out after a close call during a mission. But if a sewage farm bordering Brooklands was named after an owner named Archibald, we have a logical basis for Archibald being associated with sudden changes in pressure outside an airplane—one that doesn't rely on an arbitrary tendency of youth to give proper names to inanimate objects (as Colonel Joubert's explanation does) or on the music-hall inspired hijinks of a particular pilot (as Pegler's main-text explanation does).

Unfortunately I couldn't find any contemporaneous (early 1900s) confirmation that a person named Archibald owned the sewage farm bordering Brooklands, or that the neighboring property was then known as "Archibald sewage farm." The chronology certainly seems to fit the "Archibald sewage farm" hypothesis better than it does either of the other two—especially if we credit Pegler's comment that "Archibald! Certainly Not" did not become famous in Britain until 1914. But there is yet another complication here. A post titled "Archibald, Certainly Not!: Words and Weapons No. 4," from Oxford University's English Words in War-Time blog series, provides a couple of side-notes about George Robey and the song he popularized:

‘Archibald, Certainly Not!’, first sung by Robey in 1909, continued, for instance, to form part of his on-going music-hall repertoire. Particularly interesting, however, was Robey’s own use of modern technology, in his decision to record the song in 1911.

In other words, Robey's use of "Archibald! Certainly Not" antedates—by at least a year—Partridge's time frame for the emergence of the Brooklands use of Archibald to refer to the notoriously difficult currents above the nearby sewage farm; and Robey recorded the song in 1911, suggesting that it may have been fairly well known in Britain before the war started in 1914.

The Oxford blog doesn't mention "Archibald sewage farm" at all. If such an entity existed in the period 1910–1914, it would (I think) offer the most logical and least fanciful explanation for antiaircraft Archies. But given the lack of independent confirmation of the sewage farm's name (which forces us to rely on Pegler's account without corroboration), I can't say that this explanation of Archibald is established beyond question.

  • It seems to me that the sewage farm should have been named for "Biffy". – Hot Licks Jan 30 '16 at 2:26
  • 1
    @HotLicks: Don't mess with Biffy. – Sven Yargs Jan 30 '16 at 2:56

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