1936 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 496 words with first citations from 1936. In that year, a fifth column was said to have appeared in Madrid and German and French mudsloggers faced each other from the Maginot and Siegfried Lines. B-girls, wearing bobby pins, bras, and other accoutrements of smart casual style, went nightclubbing, while comedians and entertainers toured the borscht circuit. Scientists, scrambling to become the next Nobelist, were dubbing discoveries androgens, radiocarbon, and steroids. And consumers who wanted no-waiting service could purchase pre-washed products.

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Events of 1936:

  • January: King George V of the United Kingdom dies, succeeded by his eldest son, Edward VIII; The Green Hornet radio show debuts; writer Rudyard Kipling dies.
  • February: John Maynard Keynes publishes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money; military officers attempt a coup against the Japanese government; U. S. general and aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell dies.
  • March: Hoover Dam is completed; Germany reoccupies the Rhineland.
  • May: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf premieres in Moscow; Italy annexes Ethiopia; the Super Chief, the first diesel, all-Pullman train begins service between Chicago and Los Angeles; RMS Queen Mary makes her maiden voyage; Margaret Mitchell publishes Gone With the Wind.
  • June: Max Schmeling knocks out Joe Louis in the twelfth round of their first heavyweight fight; writer G. K. Chesterton dies.
  • July: New York City’s Triborough Bridge opens; the Spanish Civil War begins
  • August: African-American James “Jesse” Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, giving rise to the tale that Hitler refused to shake his hand because he was black (Hitler only shook hands with the German athletes, snubbing all athletes from other nations); the Moscow Trials begin in the Soviet Union, part of Stalin’s Great Purge; aviation pioneer Louis Blériot dies.
  • September: The last known thylacine or Tasmanian tiger dies in a Hobart zoo.
  • October: Germany and Italy sign a treaty of friendship; American football coach John Heisman and Anne Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller, die.
  • November: Germany and Japan sign the Anti-Comintern Pact; The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) begins service; Franklin Roosevelt is re-elected president of the United States in a landslide victory; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opens for traffic; the first issue of Life magazine hits the newsstands; the Abraham Lincoln brigade of American volunteers to fight for the Spanish Republican forces forms; the Crystal Palace in London, built for the 1851 Great Exhibition, is destroyed in a fire.
  • December: Hitler requires boys from ages 10–18 to join the Hitler Youth; Edward VIII abdicates the throne in order to marry once-divorced and currently married American socialite Wallis Simpson, and is succeeded by his brother George VI; writer Luigi Pirandello dies.

The words of 1936:

Anasazi, n. and adj. In 1936, anthropologist Alfred V. Kidder suggested that the Basket Makers, an ancient North American people, be renamed the Anasazi. Kidder took his name from the Navajo word Öanaasází, which he understood to mean “old people.” Kidder erred, however. The Navajo word is more accurately translated as “enemy/alien ancestors,” which is somewhat insulting. The name Pueblo had also been used to refer to the people, although that’s a much more general term and includes modern populations.

androgen, n. This word for a male hormone appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 1936. Its counterpart estrogen began life as a proprietary name in 1927.

back forty, n. This year’s entry into the rolls of “I can’t believe it didn’t appear earlier.” The back forty refers to an area of uncultivated land in a remote portion of a farm. The forty literally refers to forty acres, but in practice the area of a back forty is undefined. The OED also has a 1934 citation that refers to a back fifty, and since the number was apparently still in flux in the 1930s it probably means the term had yet to settle down into its canonical form and significant antedating of the term is unlikely. The term is a regional one, found chiefly in the northern and northwestern U. S. and western Canada.

B-girl, n. This term, an abbreviated form of bar girl, one who works in the bar to encourage men to buy drinks, appears in a San Francisco newspaper in 1936.

blabbermouth, n. Blabber goes back to the sixteenth century, but the compound blabbermouth appears in John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle.

bobby pin, n. The name for this hair pin appears in this year. What the bobby refers to is uncertain, but it is probably related to bobbed hair.

borscht circuit, n. This term started as entertainment slang for the resort hotels of the Catskill Mountains in New York favored by Jewish clientele and entertainers. (Think of the movie Dirty Dancing.) The alliterative borscht belt appears by 1940.

bra, n.1 The abbreviation of brassiere appears by 1936.

chi-square, n. The chi-square test is a common statistical method for determining the probability that a given set of data would arise if a particular law or cause were operating. It basically supplies an answer to how well your hypothesis fits the data. From the Greek letter X or chi, statisticians began using the jargon term around 1936.

cook-off, n. Competitions between professional chefs are all the rage on television these days, but the cook-off, which is usually an amateur affair, dates to at least 1936.

decontaminate, v. The OED records the verb from 1936, but the noun decontamination from a year earlier.

double dip, n. In 1936 this term referred to ice cream. In 1940 we got double-dipping, the practice of holding one job while drawing a pension from another past job.

double-park, v. You would have thought that all the basic automobile words would have been invented by 1936, but evidently not.

dysfunctional, adj. This adjective started in biology and by the 1940s had moved into psychology and sociology.

fifth column, n. This one is from the Spanish Civil War. In 1936 Nationalist commander Emilio Mola marched on Madrid with four columns of troops and had, as he claimed, a quinta columna within the city itself. The calque began appearing in English-language newspapers right away, and Ernest Hemingway penned a play (his only one) titled The Fifth Column, which was published in 1938.

guesstimate, n. This blend is first recorded in this year.

high technology, n. Exactly what constituted high technology was, of course, different in the 1930s. Low technology appears by 1940, and the shortened high tech appears in the 1970s.

lobotomy, n. This now discredited procedure is first described in medical journals in 1936.

Maginot, n. The line of fortifications along the French-German border was completed in 1936 and named for French Minister of War André Maginot, who had died four years earlier. The fortifications were successful, so successful in fact that in 1940 the Germans didn’t even bother to attack them; they simply went around them by invading France through Belgium, as they had in the last war.

marital rape, n. The idea that it was wrong for a husband to force sexual intercourse upon his wife started appearing in legal literature in the 1930s, but it would take decades for it to become officially recognized in many jurisdictions.

meld, v.3 This is a blend of melt and weld and means “to bend, combine.” It’s unrelated to the older meld in certain card games, such as canasta or pinochle, which is from the Dutch melden, “to declare, report.”

moral majority, n. Today we mostly associate this phrase with the evangelical Christian lobbying organization founded by Jerry Falwell in 1979, but Falwell and his cohorts did not invent the term. The 1936 use of moral majority has nothing to do with evangelical Christianity. It is used by a certain T. V. Smith to advocate for a liberal democracy ruled by a middle class who embrace the idea of using taxation to reduce economic inequality—not exactly the majority that Falwell and cohorts had in mind when they picked up the term some forty-odd years later.

mud-slogger, n. This U. S. military slang term for an infantryman is recorded from 1936. But there are older, similar terms. Foot-slogger is recorded from 1894, and mud-crusher goes back to the U. S. Civil War and 1864.

Mulligan, n.2 The golfing term for an extra, uncounted stroke dates to at least 1936. Who the eponym is derived from is unknown.

nightclub, v. (and nightclubbing, adj.) While the noun nightclub dates to the 1870s, the variations of it come in the late 1920s and the 1930s. Nightclubber is attested in 1929 and nightclubby in 1933. In 1936 we get the verb to nightclub and the adjective nightclubbing.

Nobelist, n. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, but it took thirty-five years for this word denoting one who had received the prize to make an appearance. In 1936, the journal Science referred to physicist Niels Bohr, who had been awarded the physics prize in 1922, as a Nobelist.

no-waiting, adj. (and n.) This adjective, symbolic of our hectic age, is recorded in 1936.

out-of-area, adj. and adv. A bit of military jargon that crept into civilian use during the period between the wars.

perfect storm, n. Made famous by Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book of this title about a 1991 storm off the New England coast (and the later movie starring George Clooney), this meteorological term referring to a gale created by a combination particularly adverse conditions dates to 1936. There are older collocations of perfect and storm, but they do not denote the specific meteorological meaning. The figurative use of the term in other fields, mainly economics, to refer to the worst possible set of conditions dates from Junger’s book.

pick-up-sticks, n. This name of the game, also known by the older name jackstraw, is recorded from 1936.

Polaroid, n. and adj. The Polaroid instant camera made its debut in 1948, but Edwin Land had been using the proprietary name for over a decade.

porno-, comb. form One does not associate the combining form porno- with the 1930s, much less with C. S. Lewis, but the first cited use of the form is pornogram, a term that Lewis uses in 1936 to denote certain short poems of William Dunbar, who in 1503 was one of the first to use the word fuck in a work of literature.

pre-washed, adj. This adjective appears in the 12 March 1936 Gettysburg Times (Pennsylvania) referring to “pre-washed spinach.”

radiocarbon, n. and adj. In 1934, American physicist Franz Kurie suggested that a radioactive isotope of carbon might exist. It was dubbed radiocarbon in 1936. And in 1940 researchers at the University of California, Berkeley identified it as carbon-14.

Richter, n. Charles Richter put forward his schema for measuring the power of earthquakes in 1935, and within a year it was dubbed the Richter scale. The Richter scale has largely been superseded by the moment magnitude scale, but that scale, which was devised in the 1970s, is often dubbed the Richter scale by the popular media.

Siegfried Line, n. There are actually two famous defensive lines of this name, which is after the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle and the Nibelungenlied. The first was a line of fortifications the Germans constructed in France during the First World War. Siegfried was the German codename for the line, but it was dubbed the Hindenburg Line in English. Starting in 1936, English sources began referring to it by the German name. Then in 1938, the Germans started construction of the second line of this name. It was on the German side of the French-German border and built in response to the Maginot Line.

slap-happy, adj. The synonym for punch-drunk is recorded in 1936.

smart casual, adj. and n. The OED has a 1924 citation for smart casual that is in brackets, meaning that the editors do not consider it to be, or have doubts that it is, the same meaning as later uses. But from the brief quotation it is difficult to see why it isn’t. Still, the dictionary’s first unbracketed use of this term for informal, yet stylish, dress is a 1936 citation in the Toronto Daily Star.

spliff, n. This slang term for a marijuana cigarette appears in a 1936 issue of the Kingston, Jamaica Daily Gleaner.

steroid, n. The word was coined by chemists in 1936.

Teapot Dome, n. Prior to Watergate, this was the biggest political scandal in U. S. history. The scandal involved government officials accepting bribes in the leasing of the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming. The scandal broke in 1922 and played out throughout the decade. But dictionaries don’t record the name being used of the scandal until 1936, long after it was over.

Weetabix, n. There is clearly work to be done on this breakfast cereal brand name. The 1936 citation in the OED is from the U. S. trademark registry. The term is registered in the U. K. two years later.  But it was invented and marketed earlier in Australia under the name Weet-Bix.

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.

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