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From Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, by Henri Barbusse, 1917


The Big Words

BARQUE notices that I am writing. He comes towards me on all fours through the straw and lifts his intelligent face to me, with its reddish forelock and the little quick eyes over which circumflex accents fold and unfold them-selves. His mouth is twisting in all directions, by reason of a tablet of chocolate that he crunches and chews, while he holds the moist stump of it in his fist.

With his mouth full, and wafting me the odor of a sweetshop, he stammers-- "Tell me, you writing chap, you'll be writing later about soldiers, you'll be speaking of us, eh?"

"Why yes, sonny, I shall talk about you, and about the boys, and about our life."

"Tell me, then"--he indicates with a nod the papers on which I have been making notes. With hovering pencil I watch and listen to him. He has a question to put to me--"Tell me, then, though you needn't if you don't want--there's something I want to ask you. This is it; if you make the common soldiers talk in your book, are you going to make them talk like they do talk, or shall you put it all straight--into pretty talk? It's about the big words that we use. For after all, now, besides falling out sometimes and blackguarding each other, you'll never hear two poilus open their heads for a minute without saying and repeating things that the printers wouldn't much like to print. Then what? If you don't say 'em, your portrait won't be a lifelike one it's as if you were going to paint them and then left out one of the gaudiest colors wherever you found it. All the same, it isn't usually done."

"I shall put the big words in their place, dadda, for they're the truth."

"But tell me, if you put 'em in, won't the people of your sort say you're swine, without worrying about the truth?"

"Very likely, but I shall do it all the same, without worrying about those people."

"Do you want my opinion? Although I know nothing about books, it's brave to do that, because it isn't usually done, and it'll be spicy if you dare do it--but you'll find it hard when it comes to it, you're too polite. That's just one of the faults I've found in you since we've known each other; that, and also that dirty habit you've got, when they're serving brandy out to us, you pretend it'll do you harm, and instead of giving your share to a pal, you go and pour it on your head to wash your scalp."

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