Q From Art Scott: In my traversals through Wodehouse I have three or four times encountered the Bertie Woosterism C3, as in Comrade Bingo, in which Bertie describes Bingo’s comrades: “They were a very C3 collection”. From context it obviously means substandard, low-grade, bottom-of-the-barrel, but I haven’t found a reference explaining the origin and precise meaning of the term. My guess is that it comes from some sort of government grading or rating system, C3 being the antithesis of A1, analogous to the old US Draft Board designation of 4F.
A You have it exactly right. In the First World War, as a result of conscription under the Military Service Act of January 1916, British recruits were graded from A1 to C3. The latter was the lowest grade, for men who were totally unsuitable for combat training, fit only for clerical and other sedentary jobs (it was discovered that a scandalously and horrifyingly large proportion of men — about 40% — fell into this category). The C3 classification became a figurative term for somebody of the lowest grade or of grossly inferior status or quality. The system was simplified not much more than a year later, but C3 caught on as a dismissive epithet and took a long time to vanish again.
It turns up in the literal sense in D H Lawrence’s Novel Kangaroo of 1923: “He was only two hours in the barracks. He was examined. He could tell they knew about him and disliked him. He was put in class C3 — unfit for military service, but conscripted for light non-military duties.” And it was used figuratively by Sir Albert Howard in An Agricultural Testament (1943): “The population, fed on improperly grown food, has to be bolstered up by an expensive system of patent medicines, panel doctors, dispensaries, hospitals, and convalescent homes. A C3 population is being created.”
As you say, it was a favourite of P G Wodehouse in the Bertie Wooster stories. Another example is from Right Ho, Jeeves of 1934: “Anatole, I learned, had retired to his bed with a fit of the vapours, and the meal now before us had been cooked by the kitchen maid — as C3 a performer as ever wielded a skillet.”
Today C3 is better known as the military abbreviation for “command, control and communication”.