1917 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 330 words with first citations from 1917. In that year, chowhounds could eat fu yung and shop at Piggly Wiggly. Those wanting to forget the war and drown their sorrows could get blotto or pinko. Over the western front, pilots were performing Immelmanns and dodging ack-ack. While down below, the infantry dealt with cooties, mustard gas, and storm-troops. In Russia, Bolsheviks and Leninists began forming soviets.  And U. S. enlistees finally started arriving over there.

Events of 1917:

  • January: U. S. President Woodrow Wilson calls for “peace without victory” in Europe; the United States buys what are now known as the U. S. Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million; U. S. troops begin withdrawal from Mexico after failing to catch Pancho Villa; William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody dies; in anticipation of U. S. reaction to unrestricted submarine warfare, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sends a telegram, using British telegraph cables, offering Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to Mexico if that country will declare war on the United States; the Zimmerman telegram is, of course, intercepted and decoded by the British; Germany announces the beginning of unrestricted submarine warfare on 31 January.
  • February: The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany; in Paris, Dutch woman Margaretha Geertuida Zelle, a.k.a. Mata Hari, is arrested for espionage; the British gleefully disclose the intercepted Zimmerman telegram to the U. S. ambassador in London.
  • March: The Zimmerman telegram is published in U. S. newspapers; the Jones Act grants U. S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans; Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to the U. S. House of Representatives; the February Revolution (Russia was still using the Julian Calendar and therefore was running a bit behind) results in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; Ferdinand von Zeppelin dies.
  • April: The United States declares war on Germany; Lenin arrives in Petrograd (St. Petersburg); composer Scott Joplin dies.
  • May: Three children claim to see the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal; a series of mutinies in the French army begin.
  • June: The first Pulitzer Prizes are awarded; the first U. S. troops arrive in France.
  • July: The Battle of Passchendaele begins; Arab troops, led by British officer T. E. Lawrence, a. k. a. “Lawrence of Arabia,” capture Aqaba from the Turks; in a wise, albeit belated, public relations move, the British royal family changes its name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor.
  • August: Edwin Dunning makes the first aircraft carrier landing onto the HMS Furious; Canada begins conscription.
  • September: Painter Edgar Degas dies.
  • October: Mata Hari is executed; U. S. troops enter combat in France.
  • November: The Balfour Declaration announces British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; Bolsheviks seize power in the October Revolution; Clemenceau becomes prime minister of France; the Bolsheviks offer peace terms to the Germans; sculptor Auguste Rodin and Queen Liluokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, die.
  • December: Finland declares its independence from Russia; two freighters, one laden with munitions, collide in Halifax harbor, and the resulting explosion is the biggest until Hiroshima, killing nearly 2,000 and devastating the city; British troops take Jerusalem from the Turks; Francesca Xavier “Mother” Cabrini, the first American saint, dies.

The words of 1917:

ack-ack, adj. and n. Not only were aircraft new in World War I, but (obviously) so were anti-aircraft guns. This name, which represents the initials A. A., comes out of British military signaling and communications jargon. Starting in 1898, the syllable ack was used to represent the letter A in phonetic alphabets. (In the current phonetic alphabet used by NATO nations A is represented by alfa.)

ammo, n. Ammunition dates to the seventeenth century, but this clipping is World War I slang.

ashram, n. Despite the war, colonialism was still going strong in 1917. This word for a religious retreat or hermitage is from the Hindi asrama.

Aussie, n. and adj. This inevitable hypocorism took until 1917 to be recorded.

autofocus, adj. and n. From the annals of surprising technology, I never would have guessed that these photographic devices existed this early. The original autofocusers, though, were for enlargers in the developing lab, not for the cameras themselves.

blotto, adj. There are countless slang words for being drunk. This one was first recorded in 1917.

Bolshevik, n. and adj. This Russian word literally means “member of the majority,” and was the name taken by Lenin’s supporters following the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903. It took the 1917 revolutions for the Russian word to come to the attention of English writers and editors. In later use it would come to be synonymous with Marxist or used for anyone with subversive views.

boogie, n.2 The year saw the publication of a jazz piece titled Boogie Rag.

camouflage, n. and v. This word is an example of one ally adopting the military jargon of another, from French.

catwalk, n. This term for a narrow, raised pathway got its start in airship jargon. Although writer Beatrix Potter uses the word in an 1885 journal entry, but her use appears to be in the sense of a garden path trod by actual felines.

chowhound, n. U. S. military slang for a glutton.

cootie, n.2 The trenches of the western front were hellish in many different ways. One of the milder tortures was the ubiquity of lice. The origin slang term is uncertain, but the name may have been brought to Europe by British soldiers who had served in Mayasia, where kutu is a word for a biting insect.

Czechoslovak, n. and adj. By 1917 people were already looking ahead to what the map of Europe would look like after the war. The country wouldn’t exist for another year, but its people already had a name.

Dobermann, n. It’s a popular meme that English speakers avoided using German words during the words, as in the British royal family dropping the name Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in favor of Windsor, but some words bucked the trend. The name of the dog breed, after nineteenth century Thuringian breeder Ludwig Dobermann, is first recorded in English in the midst of World War I. And the name is first recorded in Policeman’s Monthly as a breed favored for security work, from a group that would have been thought to be especially sensitive about adopting the enemy’s language.

Dora, n. When governments adopt far-reaching and frightening emergency powers, they commonly give them friendly names. The 2001 USA Patriot Act was hardly the first to put marketing spin on the curtailing of citizen’s liberties. The World War I equivalent was the British Defence of the Realm Act, or Dora.

enlistee, n. Along with the U. S. entry into the war came this word to describe those who signed up or were conscripted.

fu yung, n. In 1917 Chinese food was still rather exotic. This name for a type of sauce and commonly found in the name of the dish egg fu yung is from the Cantonese fúyúng, literally meaning “lotus.”

G-man, n. The popular tale goes that when George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes was arrested in 1933, he called the FBI agents who were arresting him G-men, or “government men.” Barnes may well have used this epithet upon his arrest, but he was by no means the first. The slang term appears in a 1930 biography of Al Capone, and its use in Ireland goes back to 1917. The G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police was charged with investigating political crimes, and in 1917 it was very busy rounding up the remnants of the Easter Rising the previous year. The G label is apparently arbitrary, with divisions of the police force alphabetically assigned letters to designate them as they were formed.

hokum, n. This is a great slang term that, sadly, you don’t hear all that often anymore. Its origin is in U. S. theatrical circles and is apparently a blend of hocus-pocus and buncombe.

Immelmann, n. This term denotes one of two aerial maneuvers named for German fighter ace Max Immelmann, who was killed in 1916. The first of these was perhaps invented by Immelmann himself. After passing an enemy aircraft, the pilot would climb sharply and just before stalling apply full rudder, forcing the plane to yaw around until it was again in a dive facing the direction it had come from. The pilot could then make another pass at the enemy from behind. The modern Immelmann, which most WWI-era aircraft were incapable of, is another method of reversing course. The aircraft executes a climbing half-loop, entering level flight in the opposite direction at the top of the loop, and then executes a half-roll to right itself. A half-roll followed by a diving half-loop is known as a split-S.

Ked, n.2 This U. S. brand of sneaker was trademarked in 1917.

Leninist, adj. and n. In 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his revolutionary nom de guerre Lenin, made his triumphant return to St. Petersburg from exile in Switzerland. Like Bolshevik, this term had earlier currency in Russian.

marlin, n.2 It seems that each year has one word that truly surprises me, appearing much later than I thought possible. For 1917 it’s this name for the large game fish with the spike-shaped snout of the genera Makaira and Tetrapterus. The name is a clipping of marlinspike, a pointed nautical tool used to separate the strands of a rope during splicing, because the nose of the fish resembles a marlinspike. Marling or marline is a type of rope, so a marlinspike is literally a “rope-spike.”

mustard gas, n. This chemical warfare agent was first used in the fighting around Ypres, Belgium in November 1917. It was particularly effective because it is a vesicant, causing blisters on exposed skin, thus rendering gas masks insufficient, and insidious, with its symptoms not appearing for some hours after exposure. Its name comes from its impure form, which smells like a mustard plant. It was also known as Yperite, after the town.

Nissen hut, n. This is a type of temporary structure, often used by the military, which was invented by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen, a Canadian serving in the Royal Engineers. It’s made of semicircular sheets of corrugated iron placed over a cement floor. In the United States, it’s usually called a Quonset hut, after the naval base on Quonset Point, Rhode Island where they were made during World War II.

OMG, int. And you thought this initialism didn’t appear until Al Gore invented the internet. Actually, the 1917 citation in the OED is an outlier; the next one doesn’t appear until 1982. But it does show that wordplay like this has a long tradition, and this particular one was probably invented numerous times until if finally caught on. The 1917 cite is in a letter by Admiral of the Fleet John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher, First Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, GCB, OM, GCVO, the man who essentially invented the battleship with his commissioning of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, and he is making a joke about orders of knighthood: “I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!”

over there, adv. This phrase is an Americanism indicating overseas military service, especially service in France during World War I. It’s from the 1917 song of the title by George M. Cohen: “Send the word o-ver there—That the Yanks are com-ing. [...] And we won’t come back till it’s o-ver o-ver there.”

package, v. The noun was verbed in 1917.

pep pill, n. This colloquial name for a stimulant appears this year. The first cite in the OED, which is from an advertisement in the Decatur Review (Illinois) is interesting in that some of the physiological effects it claims are exactly the opposite of what stimulants deliver: “‘Pep’ Pills will make you more efficient, will make most thin people take on weight, will nourish starved nerves that are on edge, will tone up your sluggish system.” Pharmaceutical companies haven’t changed.

Piggly Wiggly, n. The first citation for this proprietary name of a chain of U. S. grocery stores appears in December 1917, although the company was actually founded the previous year. Piggly Wiggly was one of the first self-service grocery stores, what would eventually become known as supermarkets. Piggly Wiggly stores are mainly found in the southern United States.

pinko, adj. and n. You might think this 1917 word had something to do with the Russian Revolution, but it doesn’t. The sense that appears in this year is that of “drunk, intoxicated.” It’s Australian slang. The “socialist” sense doesn’t appear until 1925.

razzing, n. This term for “mocking, jeering” is first recorded from a New York Giants fan about the Chicago White Sox fans at the 1917 World Series. Chicago won the series four games to two.

Soviet, n. and adj. The first soviet, or worker’s council, was formed during the unsuccessful 1905 revolution. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was founded in 1917 in the wake of the October Revolution. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would be formed in 1922. The Russian sovet means “council.”

spritz, v. This verb means “to sprinkle, spray.” It’s from the German verb spritzen.

storm-troops, n. In the final years of the war Germany trained elite soldiers to carry out infiltration attacks against the Allied trenches. The tactic was highly successful and would almost lead to a German victory in 1918. These soldiers were called Sturmtruppen, or “storm-troops.” The association of storm with a military assault is an old one in both languages. In English, the verb to storm has been used to mean “assault” since at least 1645, when it appears in letter by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War.

supersize, adj. and n. This one predates both McDonalds and Morgan Spurlock.

toot sweet, adv. British troops in France and Belgium coined this slang term meaning “promptly, right away,” based on the French tout de suite.

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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