The Oxford English Dictionary has 309 words with first citations from 1919. The war was over, but revolution and unrest ran rampant across Europe and North America. In this year, soldiers returning from their fox-holes and the recent dust-up with Jerry were being deloused. It was copacetic to dunk your bagel in your chai, but who would want to? Semi-trailers were carrying heavy-lift loads along the highways. And in the United States, having a shot and a beer could land you in the pokey, but you could use a payphone to make your one call.
Events of 1919:
- January: The Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution bans alcohol (the start of Prohibition); Versailles peace conference begins; the League of Nations is founded; Irish War of Independence begins; Theodore Roosevelt dies.
- February: Soviet troops occupy the Ukraine; Friedrich Ebert is elected president of Germany; the Polish-Soviet war begins.
- March: The first Communist International (Comintern) meets in Moscow; Mussolini founds the Fascist political movement.
- April: British troops kill 379 Sikhs in the Amritsar Massacre; U. S. labor leader Eugene Debs goes to prison for his having opposed the draft during the war; Walter Gropius founds the Bauhaus school of architecture; a wave of Anarchist bombings begins in the United States; discount store pioneer F. W. Woolworth dies.
- May: A U. S. Navy aircraft makes the first transatlantic flight: Newfoundland to Lisbon via the Azores; Turkish War of Independence Begins; The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) opens its doors; L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wizard of Oz, dies.
- June: The Winnipeg General Strike ends after Mounties fire into a crowd of unemployed veterans; the German fleet is scuttled at Scapa Flow, Scotland; the Treaty of Versailles officially ends World War I.
- August: The American football team Green Bay Packers are founded; the Weimar Constitution is ratified in Germany; the American Communist Party is founded; steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie dies.
- October: U. S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a debilitating stroke and is incapacitated for the rest of his term.
- November: First of the so-called “Palmer raids” by U. S. federal agents against leftist and anarchist organizations; debut of Felix the Cat, a cartoon; Arthur Eddington and Andrew Crommelin announce their observation of light “bending” around the sun during a total eclipse, confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity; U. S. Senate fails to ratify the Treaty of Versailles; the Spanish Flu pandemic is declared over.
The words of 1919:
air freight, n. By 1919, it was not only mail that was being carried aloft. The first citation for air freight in the OED is in reference to Zeppelins, as evidently airplanes were still not large enough to make shipping of bulk items practical.
ad-lib, v. This staple of comedy and improvisational theater appears this year, although there is an older adverbial use of ad-lib in music meaning to extend a musical phrase and introduce variation as the musician sees fit. The term is a clipping of the Latin ad libitum, meaning “to the extent that it pleases.”
bagel, n. Until rather recently, it was hard to find bagels outside of New York City, and it’s still hard to find a decent one outside the city, but the word for this ring-like bread has a citation in the OED dating to 1919, spelled beigel. The dictionary also has an 1892 citation for Beuglich. The word is from the Yiddish beygel.
bimbo, n.2 A variant on the Italian bambino. This word was originally applied to men and was simply a contemptuous way to say “guy, fellow.” By 1927 bimbo was being applied to attractive women of limited intelligence.
chai, n. This is a good example of how the OED’s date of first citation can trip you up. The entry for chai, n. does indeed have a first citation from 1919. The entry marked as military slang for tea. But there is the older cha, from the Mandarin word for tea, whose English use dates to the early seventeenth century. The Chinese word was also borrowed into Russian, Hindi, Arabic, and Italian, and it has probably been reintroduced into English multiple times from these languages. For example, the 1919 appearance of chai may be from soldiers returning from wartime service in the Middle East or perhaps from Russian émigrés fleeing the revolution. Today, the word is commonly applied to a sweetened brew of spiced tea, or masala chai. This sense is a relatively recent addition. Masala chai makes its English appearance in 1977 and the OED has yet to include this definition under the shorter chai.
collage, n. At first I was surprised by the 1919 date for this word. I thought that it surely must have been older. But upon reflection, the date makes sense. An abstract art form using clippings from various media sources is so twentieth century.
copacetic, n. This U. S. slang term for “fine, excellent” is first attested in this year. The origin is unknown.
cross-selling, n. Annoying innovations in marketing continued apace in 1919.
delouse, v. Soldiers returning from overseas service were routinely deloused before released onto the welcoming public.
dunk, v. The action is so ubiquitous that the chain Dunkin’ Donuts is even named after the practice. But the action of dipping something into your coffee didn’t have a name until 1919. The term is from the Pennsylvania German dunke, and ultimately the German tunken. The verb was being used in basketball by 1937.
encode, v. The verb to decode dates to the 1890s, but it took a few of decades for its partner to appear.
fox-hole, n. Even though the war was over, military jargon was still worming its way into the lingo of the general populace.
Greenwich Village, adj. The name of this New York City neighborhood is almost as old as the city itself, named Groenwijck by the original Dutch settlers. But in 1919 the name started being used adjectivally to refer to the Bohemian lifestyle of the writers, artists, and musicians that were taking up residence there, as in “it was not as if it was really Greenwich village [sic] Bohemianism.” Although the OED does have a slightly earlier, from 1917, citation of the adjective Greenwich-Village-y.
heavy-lift, adj. Like air freight, this term is jargon from the transportation and shipping business. It refers to the capability to move and ship large, indivisible items. While the term dates to 1919, what qualifies as heavy-lift has gotten bigger. The 1919 citation in the OED refers to items weighing two metric tons, which would not be considered a job for heavy-lift today.
Jerry, n.2 This nickname for Germans, and German soldiers in particular, must have been in use during the war, but it’s only recorded from 1919.
mercurochrome, n. Those of us who are older will recall mercurochrome, an over-the-counter antiseptic that was in common use in our childhood. It was so common, that the word mercurochrome was almost a synonym for antiseptic. In 1919, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore discovered its antiseptic properties. In 1998, after a run of nearly eighty years, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration halted its sales in the United States because it contains mercury. It’s still available in other countries.
Naugahyde, n. No, the nauga is not some kind of animal. Naugahyde is fabric covered with a rubber or vinyl resin and finished so that it resembles leather. It derives its name from Naugatuck, Connecticut, where it was originally manufactured. Appropriately, the 1919 citation in the OED is from the journal Rubber Age.
offline, adj. and adv. We so closely associate this word with networked computing, that a 1919 date seems very surprising. But the 1919 use was in the sense of railroad operations like ticketing, planning, and administration that were conducted in offices some distance away from the rail lines. Online, also in the railroad sense, is cited from 1926. The computing sense doesn’t appear until 1950.
one-world, adj. In the aftermath of the world war, the idea we all live on a single planet and that we shouldn’t let political considerations divide us. The idea not only gave rise to the League of Nations, but also bequeathed us this adjective.
payphone, n. The word payphone was new in 1919, but the concept was not. The unclipped pay telephone dates to 1917, and pay stations, where one could pay to make a telephone call, appeared as early as 1888.
P-Celtic, n. and adj. Celtic languages are divided into two major groups. The P-Celtic languages are Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. They are also called Brittonic or Brythonic. The designation P-Celtic dates to 1919, but linguists had been dividing the Celtic languages into P and Q groups since 1891. The name comes from that fact that the Indo-European / *kw / developed into / p / in these languages. Cf. Q-Celtic, below.
penne, n. In 1919 you could start ordering penne pasta and expect English-speaking waiters to understand you. The word is from the Italian word for feather, as the tube-shaped pasta resembles the shaft of a quill.
phooey, int. People have probably been making this sound since before there was language, but in 1919 it got a new name.
pokey, n.2 This North American slang term, meaning “prison, jail,” appears in this year. It’s from the somewhat older pogey, a term dating to 1891 that means “poorhouse” or “home for the disabled.”
Q-Celtic, n. The second group of Celtic languages is the Q-Celtic, or Goidelic, and consists of Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. The term Q-Celtic is from 1919, but the term Q-Celt was in use since 1891. The term comes from the fact these languages retain the Indo-European / *qu / sound in certain words.
radio, v. The noun, which itself was only a little more than a decade old, was verbed in 1919.
recharger, n. 1919 saw the continued rise of our electric-powered existence with the invention of this word for the devices that revitalize batteries. Its original use was in reference to automobile batteries.
semi-trailer, n. A ubiquitous sight on the highways today, semi-trailers were new in 1919.
snookums, n. Sometimes lexicographers have fun with their definitions. The key is to be playful while still conveying the sense accurately and concisely. The OED definition for snookums is worth quoting in full, “a trivial term of endearment, usu. applied to children or lap-dogs.” The dictionary also advises us to compare it with diddums (1893) and Snooks (1860).
spooking, n. Between the war and the influenza outbreak, some forty-six million people had met untimely ends in less than five years. One inevitable result of this was a rise in spiritualism and the occult as hucksters and cheats preyed on the bereaved, offering to contact their lost loved ones. Spooking was a term that came out of this trend, referring to a séance or an invoking of spirits.
supercharge, v. This term arose from advances in automotive and aircraft technologies.
supersonic, adj. It would be decades before humans would create a vehicle that exceeded the speed of sound, but in 1919 it was possible to accelerate certain objects, such as bullets, faster than sound, and engineers had invented a term for it.
white-collar, n. and adj. This term for a worker engaged in non-manual labor first appears in Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is about journalism. Its compadre blue collar doesn’t appear until 1950.
wonky, adj.1 With the rise of mechanical and electrical devices in the opening decades of the twentieth century, it was no surprise when they went wonky on occasion. The term could apply to people as well as machinery. The phrase all of a wonk, meaning nervous or upset, is recorded in 1918. The origin of wonky is unknown. Its sense meaning “bookish, nerdy” appears in 1978 and is probably related through a long chain from nervous to hard-working to nerd.
zing, int. This interjection first appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress: “The generous blood of the Belphers boiled over, and then—zing. They jerked him off to Vine Street.” Zingo, however, is a bit older, being recorded in 1914.
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 1997-2013, by David Wilton