Squareheads, Blockheads and Other Epithets As Applied to German Soldiers of World War I

Here are some of the commonly used epithets for German soldiers during World War I:

Bosche–the pejorative French word for German is from the French “albosche,” and “caboche” (cabbage head or blockhead). This was very commonly applied to the German soldiers by the French. They hardly knew the World War I or II German soldier by any other name.

William Casselman, author of Canadian Words and Sayings has this to say concerning the expression Bosche:

“Boche is a French slang word for ‘rascal’ first applied to German soldiers during World War One, and borrowed during the early years of that conflict into British English.

A definition is given in Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918, edited by John Brophy and Eric Partridge, published in 1930. I have augmented their note.

Boche is the preferred and most common English spelling. Bosche is a rarer English alternative spelling.

The word was first used in the phrase tête de boche. The French philologist Albert Dauzat believed boche to be an abbreviation of caboche, playful French slang for ‘human head,’ very much like English comic synonyms for head such as ‘the old noodle,’ noggin, nut, numbskull.

One of the ways of saying ‘to be obstinate, to be pigheaded’ in French is avoir la caboche dure. The root of caboche in the old French province of Picardy is ultimately the Latin word caput ‘head.’ Our English word cabbage has the same origin, the compact head of leaves being a perfect ‘caboche.’

Tête de boche was used as early as 1862 of obstinate persons. It is in print in a document published at Metz . In 1874 French typographers applied it to German compositors. By 1883, states Alfred Delvau’s Dictionnaire de la langue Verte, the phrase had come to have the meaning of mauvais sujet and was so used especially by prostitutes.

The Germans, having among the French a reputation for obstinacy and being a bad lot, came to be named with a jesting version of allemande, namely allboche or alboche. About 1900 alboche was shortened to boche as a generic name for Germans. During the war, propaganda posters revived the term by using the phrase sale boche ‘dirty kraut.’

At the beginning of WWI boche had two meanings in continental French: (a) a German and (b) stubborn, hard-headed, obstinate. Quickly during the course of the war, this French slang word was taken up by the English press and public.

By the time of World War Two, while boche was still used in French, it had been replaced in continental French by other put-down terms, such as ‘maudit fritz,’ ‘fridolin,’ and ‘schleu.’ These three milder pejoratives were common during the German occupation of France from 1941 to 1945.” 3

Fritz–a common German given name.

Terms of disparagement in English during WWII used by British troops were ‘Jerry’ and ‘Fritz’ in the British army and navy, and ‘Hun’ in the RAF. Canadian and American troops generally preferred ‘Heinie,’ ‘Kraut’ or Fritz. 3

Heinie–probably a form of Heinz, another common German given name. Heinie or Hiney is dated by Lighter to Life in Sing Sing, a 1904 book and says it was in common usage during WWI to denote Germans. 1 Heinie is also defined in the dictionary as being slang for buttocks. 2

Hun–a throwback to the times of the barbaric German tribes known as the “Huns.”

The use of “Hun” in reference to German soldiers is a case of propaganda. In order to fully dehumanize the enemy he must first be thought of as patently different from you and yours. It was initially quite difficult to get “decent white people” of Blighty riled up over the “otherwise decent white people” of central Europe. The solution, then, was to transform them philosophically into rampaging Mongol hordes from the East. One look at the simian features applied to German soldiers portrayed on the Allied propaganda posters drives the point home. Who would you fear and hate more–a nice blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Hamburg or an apelike, rapacious brute from some distant and dark land?”

“Huns” resulted from a remark made by Kaiser Wilhelm when he dispatched a German expeditionary corps to China during the Boxer Rebellion. He basically told his troops to show no mercy, saying that 1,000 years ago the Huns (an Asiatic nomad people, not Germanic in the least) led by Attila, had made such a name for themselves with their depredations that they were still considered synonymous with wanton destruction, and urging the German troops of 1900 in China to similarly make a name for themselves that would last 1,000 years. When the Germans were fighting the French and the British a mere 14 years later, this piece of ready-made propaganda was too good to pass up for the Allied side, particularly in view of the reports coming in from Belgium from the earliest days of the war.

Hun is defined in the dictionary as being a barbarous or destructive person and also as being offensive slang–used as a disparaging term for a German, especially a German soldier in World War I. 2

Dutch–used by the American soldiers, i.e., anyone who spoke with a guttural accent in America was commonly known as a “Dutchman.”

Dutch is defined in the dictionary as being a term of or related to any of the Germanic peoples or languages. 2

Kraut–an obviously abbreviated form of sauerkraut. Kraut, krout, crout as in use in America by the 1840’s to refer to Dutchmen and by American soldiers during WWI and II to refer to Germans with its origin found in sauerkraut. 1 Kraut is defined in the dictionary as being offensive slang and used as a disparaging term for a German. Among Americans this is the principal recognized use of the word. 2

Squarehead or Blockhead– Most interesting of all was the appellation of “Squarehead,” or “Blockhead,” as applied to the German soldiers and mostly by the American soldiers. I have often wondered if these two appellations had any anthropological origin. There are numerous references in literature and by American soldiers to the effect that the shape of the skulls of the German soldiers appeared to be “blocked,” or “squared.” One doughboy states that he made an amateur study of the shape of the skulls of German soldiers and that, to his eye, they definitely were ‘blocked,’ or ‘squared’ in configuration. I can understand the expression to have one’s “block knocked off,” or “I’ll knock your block off,” – “block” being the slang for one’s head. Seemingly there was a causual relationship between these two latter expressions and “blockheads,” or “squareheads. Possibly there was an anthropological origin for German male skulls being more ‘blocked,’ or ‘squared’ in shape. Could it be that the appearance of German male skulls had some relationship to the physical positions in which they slept as infants? Let us look at some of the origins of “squarehead” and “blockhead.”

The idea has been ventured that “squarehead” and “blockhead” resulted from the shape of the German steel helmet of World War I. No evidence has so far been gathered to support this observation.

Blockhead goes back to the 1500’s and defines a stupid person, a block of wood for a head. I think it was probably mistakenly applied to Germans because of its similarity to blockhead and eventually the words became synonymous. Squarehead has been used to describe Germans and Scandinavians and was used as a mild pejorative for Danes and Swedes in the American midwest. It is believed to be of Austrian origin from the late 1800’s. It does define an ethnic physical characteristic of a squarish-shaped face exhibited by some Northern Europeans. Its genetic, not from how one slept. The similar boxhead appeared in the early 1900’s before WWI.

Squarehead is listed in The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, 1917-1919: An Historical Glossary by Jonathan Lighter, American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, Vol. 47, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 1972 as in use in America to describe Germans and Scandinavians before WWI. Lighter does not mention blockhead and offers no origin for that term.

The standard German military haircut seemed to produce the “square” or “block” look. This would also be in line with the term “jarhead” for a US Marine, again because of this style of hair. “Squarehead,” at least, remained a term in vogue in the postwar era for anyone of German origin. Of course, every race and/or nationality had its own terms by which it was described, most of which would today be considered derogatory or racist.

Of course, when one considers the word-origins of “Squarehead,” and “Blockhead,” the logical question arises, ‘What about “Roundheads,” an expression that gained popularity during the English Civil War? Is this more in the way of physical anthropology or how the ’round’ skull was formed in infancy?

Actually, the term “Roundheads” for the Parliamentarians was a derogatory (and, it seems, class-based) reference to the very short hair worn by the London apprentices, with whom the Royalists apparently lumped all their opponents. (The counter-insult, “Cavalier,” likened the Royalists to caballeros–i.e., the servants of Catholic authoritarian Spain.) see Martyn Bennett, The Civil Wars in Britain and Ireland 1638-1651, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 104-5.

Roundheads” from the English Civil War refers to the haircuts of the more Puritan members of the Parliament forces–your basic bowl look, close-cropped and very conservative. It distinguished them from the often elegantly-coiffed “cavaliers,” (Royalists), gentlemen of noble birth, and often of considerable wealth–on the other side, with their long and flamboyant locks.

“Roundhead” as a propaganda epithet for Parliamentarian troopers appears to originate in the fact that they kept their hair cut short as against the archetypal flowing locks of Royalist cavalrymen. While this was not always the case (indeed there is a famous van Dyke portrait of George, Lord Digby and William, Lord Russell, the former in the dandified ‘Cavalier’ outfit and flowing main, the other in the sombre Puritan black–the former fought for Parliament, the latter for the King) it was enough of a stereotype for both ‘Roundhead’ and ‘Cavalier’ to be used by propagandists as terms of insult although this did not stop both sets of troopers from taking the terms to their hearts as compliment. If one is to believe those two great historians Walter Carruthers Seller and Robert Julian Yeatman: The Roundheads, of course, were so called because Cromwell had all their heads made perfectly round, in order that they should present a uniform appearance when drawn up in line. Besides this, if any man lost his head in action, it could be used as a cannon ball by the artillery (which was done at the siege of Worcester).

As to appellations, we see that the German was less affectionately referred to as Huns, Boche and Jerries. American soldiers were referred to as Yanks and Doughboys, while the British were referred to as Brits or Tommys, and the French as Poilus.” 4


1. “The Slang of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, 1917-1919: An Historical Glossary,” by Jonathan Lighter, American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, Vol. 47, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 1972.

2. The Free Dictionary, http://www.thefreedictionary.com

3. http://www.billcasselman.com and specifically his web site http://www.billcasselman.com/wording_room/boche.htm. Material used with the permission of Mr. Casselman.

4. Chenoweth, H. Avery & Brooke Nihart, Semper Fi: The Definitive Illustrated History of the U. S. Marines. NY: Main Street, 2005, page 142.