The Oxford English Dictionary lists 372 words with first citations from 1916. On the western front that year, hush-hush weapons like tanks and blimps were being introduced. and soldiers were going over the top. In the United States, people were ambivalent about the war, preferring news about moviedom and drinking a new cola called Pepsi, while at the same time enrolling in ROTC. Doctors were worried about carcinogenic substances, superbugs, dysfunction, and intersexuality. And linguists first began talking about the proto-Indo-European language.
Events of 1916:
- January: First successful blood transfusion using stored blood.
- February: The Battle of Verdun begins; writer Henry James dies.
- March: Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa conducts a raid into the United States and U. S. troops invade Mexico in response.
- April: The Chicago Cubs play their first game at what will become known as Wrigley Field; Easter Rising in Ireland.
- May: The Battle of Jutland (31 May–1 June), the largest battleship engagement in history ended in a tactical draw but British strategic victory as the British continued the blockade of Germany; writer Sholom Aleichem dies.
- June: Louis Brandeis sworn in as associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, the first Jew to serve on the court; painter Thomas Eakins dies.
- July: The Battle of the Somme begins, with British forces suffering 60,000 casualties on the first day.
- October: Margaret Sanger opens the first U. S. birth control clinic, a forerunner to Planned Parenthood; poet James Whitcomb Riley dies.
- November: Woodrow Wilson reelected U. S. president, largely on an anti-war platform; the Battle of the Somme concludes with over 300,000 deaths on both sides and only minor territorial gains by the Allies; astronomer Percival Lowell dies; writers Saki (H. H. Munro) and Jack London die.
- December: the Sopwith Camel makes its wartime debut; Rasputin dies (several times).
The words of 1916:
ambivalent, adj. The 1916 date on this word is a bit of a shocker. It seems like such a basic concept that it had to have been earlier. But the first citation in the OED is from a translation of Carl Jung’s papers.
angle-parking, n. Automobiles were moving out of their infancy by 1916, but a lot of the fundamentals of the automotive infrastructure were still being worked out.
blimp, n. This name for a non-rigid airship is another war word. The origin of the name is uncertain, but it probably has to do with the sound created when the side of the gas bag is struck.
Brillo, n. This brand of steel-wool scouring pad makes its appearance in 1916.
carcinogenic, adj. The battle against cancer has been a long one. In 1916 the mechanisms causing the disease were first beginning to be understood. This word first appears in The Lancet in this year, a compound of car[cinoma] + -genic.
dealership, n. In 1916, consumer culture was getting on its feet and various channels for supplying the public with goods were being invented. While the word dealer dates back to the Anglo-Saxon era and the sense of the word meaning “a trader in a particular type or brand of product” dates to the seventeenth century, the word dealership wasn’t coined until the twentieth.
dysfunction, n. Another psychological term that is first recorded in 1916.
economy size, n. and adj. Not only were marketers trying new channels to bring their goods to the public, but they were trying out various new forms and sizes as well.
fuck-all, n. and adj. The so-called f-bomb may be the most versatile word in the language, appearing in countless forms and contexts. This particular variant, meaning “absolutely nothing,” appears in a British trial transcript from this year, indicating that despite the popular opinion that our use of the language is coarsening, fuck has been in wide and versatile use for a long time, only publishers wouldn’t admit it.
goof, n. and goofus, n. Both of these terms, meaning “a stupid or foolish person,” make their debut in 1916. The dialectal goff is older, dating to the sixteenth century.
homo-erotic, adj. and n. This was originally a psychological term that eventually became a literary and artistic one. It may be the first homo- derivative of homosexual, which was only coined in 1892.
hush-hush, n. Wars don’t just give us technical terms associated with weapons.
hydro, n.2 This is a Canadian term for the electrical power grid, from hydro-electric. When first trying to rent an apartment in Toronto, I was baffled by why all the listings required tenants to pay for water separately, but not electricity. Then I discovered what hydro meant up here.
intersexuality, n. A translation of the German intersexualität, this is yet another psychological term coined in 1916. It refers to the possession of characteristics of both sexes, hermaphroditism.
job hunting, n. Job hunter, however, is earlier.
looey, n. This is another military word, but it comes out of the U. S. invasion of Mexico in 1916, not the war in Europe. It’s an American military slang term for a lieutenant.
low-maintenance, adj. In 1916 this term was applied to automobiles. It wasn’t until the 1980s that low-maintenance and high-maintenance were applied to people.
moviedom, n. Hollywood likes to invent names for itself. This one is modeled after the slightly earlier filmdom.
multibillion, adj. Terms like this are a nice guide to inflation over the centuries.
National Socialist, adj. and n. This term eventually became co-opted by Hitler and the Nazis, but in 1916 it referred to a non-Marxist, nationalist, socially progressive, political party in Germany. The party had been founded in 1896, but it took a few decades for the name to make it into English language papers. It wasn’t until 1920 that the quite different Deutsche Arbeiterpartie (German Worker’s Party) changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartie (National Socialist German Worker’s Party, or Nazi Party).
op, n.3 Another war word, a clipping of operation.
over the top, adv. and adj. We don’t typically think of this term as being military in nature, but its origins are in the trench warfare of the western front. It referred to soldiers storming over the parapets of their own trenches to cross no-man’s land and engage the enemy. A tactic that usually resulted in horrendous casualties, like the 60,000 the British suffered in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. After the war, the term lost some of its horror and military associations and by 1935 had become a general adjective referring to excessive exaggeration or beyond reasonable limits.
pan-Arab, adj. and n. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the offing, various movements to unite the Arab peoples were coming to the fore in 1916.
Pepsi, n. The U. S. trademark for the soft-drink was filed in 1916.
proto-Indo-European, n. and adj. 1916 was a big year for etymology with the coining of this term for the ancestor of most European and South Asian languages.
realtor, n. In 1916 the U. S. National Association of Real Estate Boards adopted this word for its members. It is a trademarked term and technically should only be used to refer to those who are members of what is now called the National Association of Realtors, but it is used generally to refer to any real-estate agent.
red giant, n. A massive, high-luminous star near the end of its life. Betelgeuse in Orion may be the most famous example. Our sun will become a red giant in about five billion years.
ROTC, n. While in 1916 the idea of entering the European war was anathema to most in the United States, preparations for what many saw as the inevitable began as the year saw the establishment of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program to train university students to become military officers. The program continues to this day and supplies the bulk of officers to the U. S. military. It’s often pronounced / rot-see /.
shill, n. A carnival or underworld slang term for an accomplice who poses as a successful player in a gambling game to attract other customers. It may be a clipping of shillaber, a synonym attested a few years earlier, but of unknown origin.
superbug, n. One would think superbugs were a twenty-first century concern, but the original ones weren’t antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but actual insects that showed resistance to pesticides.
tank, n.7 This code word was first applied to the new armored, tracked vehicle mounting a gun in 1915 in the hope that the Germans would believe the large metal objects being shipped to France were water tanks. The name caught on and first appeared in print in September 1916 when the first tanks went into action at the Somme.
Technicolor, n. and adj. The Technicolor Company was founded in 1916 to produce color movies. Later on, the term came to be applied to any of the proprietary processes used by that company.
trip-wire, n. A wire, which when moved or tripped over, activates a signal or weapon, alerting the defenders of a military position that an attack is underway.
U-boat, n. Originally a German abbreviation of unterseeboot (undersea-boat or submarine), this term made its way into English in this year. Unrestricted U-boat warfare, begun after the German failure to break the British blockade at the Battle of Jutland, would bring the United States into the war on the Allied side in 1917.
These words are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, based on that dictionary’s earliest citation for that word. Of course, that does not necessarily mean the word was coined in the given year; it only means that is the earliest date the big dictionary has for the word. In many cases, these words can and have been antedated. For each year, I try to select twenty-six words, one for each letter of the alphabet. But in some cases I’ve got more than one for a particular letter, in others none. My selection is not scientific or systematic; it is based on what I think is interesting; sometimes they are words that appear earlier or later than I would have thought; others have a particular historical affiliation for that year or represent some historical trend; and others are just odd words. I’m avoiding back-formations and variations on existing words. Again, be warned that the coining of a word does not necessarily coincide with the invention of a concept. Often, there will be older words that express the same sense.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton