The Oxford English Dictionary has 449 words with first citations from 1920. In that year, you could order T-shirts, leotards, and plus fours from off-the rack. Prohibition did not deter cointreau, daiquiris, or piña coladas from making a splash. If you went gaga, you could benefit from both psychopharmacology and hypnoanalysis. Palookas were taken in by Ponzi schemes. Also, market research determined that it was time to start mass marketing exotic foreign products like Gauloises, guacamole, sukiyaki, and tempura. And both martial arts and non-violence were introduced into the language.
Events of 1920:
- January: The Boston Red Sox trade Babe Ruth to the N. Y. Yankees for $100,000, the largest sum ever paid for a player at the time; George “The Human Fly” Polley climbs the Woolworth Building in New York City, making it to the thirtieth floor before being arrested; a New York Times editorial ridicules rocket-scientist Robert Goddard as a crank (the paper printed a retraction in 1969, after the Apollo 11 moon landing); the U. S. Senate votes against joining the League of Nations; The Netherlands refuses to extradite German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had fled there after the war.
- February: The League of Women Voters is founded in the U. S.; Anna Anderson claims to be Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia; Adolf Hitler organizes a 2,000-person rally in Munich; the first dog track with an automated rabbit opens in Emeryville, CA.
- March: Ruhr Uprising begins, a left-wing worker’s revolt in Germany.
- April: The German army occupies the Ruhr to quell the uprising.
- May: The first Negro National League baseball game is played, the Indianapolis ABCs beating the Chicago American Giants 4–2 at home; the Treaty of Moscow recognizes independence of Georgia; Joan of Arc is canonized; France and Belgium end their occupation of Germany.
- July: Pancho Villa surrenders, ending the Mexican Revolution; Eugénie de Montijo, the last empress of France, dies.
- August: Britain suspends jury trials in Ireland, riots ensue; the first commercial radio station in the U. S., WWJ in Detroit, begins broadcasting; the nineteenth amendment to the U. S. Constitution passes, giving women the right to vote throughout the nation.
- September: A bomb, believed planted by anarchists although the case was never solved, explodes in front of the J. P. Morgan building in New York City, killing 38 and injuring over 400; the National Football League is founded; the first domestic radio sets go on sale in the United States; Adolf Hitler makes his first public speech; jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé dies.
- October: Polish-Soviet War ends with a Polish victory; American journalist John Reed dies in Moscow.
- November: Warren Harding is elected U. S. president in the first election where women have the right to vote; Bloody Sunday, where British troops open fire at a Gaelic football match in Dublin, killing 31.
- December: Martial law is declared in Ireland; American football player George Gipp dies.
The words of 1920:
adversarial, adj. The late appearance of this word is absolutely stunning to me. The noun adversary goes back to the fourteenth century. It even appears in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible. But the adjective based on that noun is a twentieth-century coinage. It arises out of the field of law and jurisprudence, where the Anglo-American system of justice characterized by advocates of opposing sides arguing cases in front a jury is adversarial. The term adversary system appears in 1913 in the Proceedings of the Washington State Bar Association. The adjective adversarial follows in 1920 in the Virginia Law Review. The late appearance is best explained by the late-nineteenth-century creation of the modern law school in United States. Prior to this, prospective lawyers learned their trade by “reading law” in apprenticeships under experienced lawyers. As law schools grew in number, so did academic writing and discussion of the law and the need for new terms such as this.
biotechnologist, n. On the other hand, biotechnologist appears earlier than I would have expected. The noun biotechnology is attested to in 1921. Its predecessor, biotechnics, is much older, appearing in 1852. The techniques used by biotechnologists in the 1920s are not the same as those used in genetics labs today, but the concept of applying advances in biological knowledge to agriculture and medicine is the same.
bongo, n.2 Following the Spanish-American War and Cuban independence, Havana became a hot tourist spot. So by the 1920s, it is not surprising to see bongo drums and other aspects of Cuban culture becoming familiar and integrating into American life.
cointreau, n. The French orange-flavored liqueur was first produced in 1849 by Adolphe Cointreau. But it took until 1920 for cointreau to work its way into English. Ironically, 1920 is the year that full enforcement of Prohibition went into effect in the United States, but the year also sees a number of drink names being coined. These include daiquiri, goldwasser, and piña colada.
columnist, n. Newspaper gossip columns appeared as early as the 1850s, but in the early years of the twentieth century the column became a staple of newspapers, with such greats as H. L. Mencken, Damon Runyon, and Will Rogers making their mark. In these early years, the word was often jocularly spelled colyum, and the OED’s first citation of columnist is spelled colyumnist.
Dada, n.2 This anti-art movement which highlighted the meaningless and absurdity of modern life started in Zurich during World War I. By 1920, the word was appearing in English.
deb, n. The OED marks this abbreviation for débutante as being from 1920, although the citation from that year is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise which uses the spelling debbie. The shorter deb does not appear until Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses.
ethnolinguistic, adj. In 1920, linguists coined a term for those among their profession who study the relation between language and culture.
feedback, n. This electronic term for a portion of the output of a system being fed back into the system came out of the radio industry. The specific and more familiar case where a microphone picks up the signal from a speaker appears by 1936.
food chain, n. This biological concept received its name in 1920.
gaga, adj. Long before Lady Gaga, there was just plain gaga. The OED’s first citation of this word, meaning insane, demented, or senile, is from one of Ford Madox Ford’s letters.
Gauloise, n. Gauloises, the quintessential symbol of everything French, made their first appearance in France in 1910. Ten years later, the maker of the French cigarette trademarked its brand in Britain.
guacamole, n. Half a world away from France, this word was imported from American Spanish in 1920. It’s ultimately from the Nahuatl word, ahuacamolli, ahuacatl (avocado) + molli (sauce).
haemorrhage, v. The noun has been with us since the late seventeenth century, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was verbed.
hypnoanalysis, n. Psychologists began combining hypnosis and psychoanalysis in this year.
inflationary, adj. The noun inflation, as applied to money and currency, dates to the mid-nineteenth century, but the adjective doesn’t appear until 1920. Both the noun deflation and it adjective deflationary also appear in 1920. Evidently there was concern for the stability of the post-war monetary system even at this early date.
Internationale, n. The name of the socialist revolutionary anthem, composed in 1871, became anglicized in 1920. Previously, it had been rendered with the original French title, L’Internationale. The dropping of the L’ may seem like a small thing, but it is clues like a switch from L’ to the that show when foreign terms become truly adopted into a language.
jihadi, n. This word did not burst onto the scene in 2001. It had been kicking around the English language for over eighty years.
leotard, n. This garment, favored by acrobats and dancers, gets its name from French trapeze artist Jules Léotard, although Léotard had died fifty years earlier.
market research, n. Another addition to the jargon of the consumer capitalism that dominates our age.
martial art, n. The English term is a calque, a translation of a foreign term, for the Japanese bugei. The OED’s 1920 citation is from a Japanese-American dictionary. The term martial art(s) would not become widespread until after World War II, when American soldiers in Japan became familiar with the various disciplines. The OED notes that in the Japanese tradition, the seven martial arts are fencing, spearmanship, archery, horse-riding, ju-jitsu, marksmanship, and military strategy. In English usage, the martial arts would not be thought to include most of these, with the definition focusing on the hand-to-hand combat skills of ju-jitsu, judo, karate, kung fu, tae kwon do, and others, many of which are not even Japanese. Shifts in meaning frequently accompany the borrowing of words.
mass marketing, n. Yet another marketing term from the golden age of sales innovation.
nah, adv.2 This American colloquial pronunciation of no is first recorded in print in 1920. Of course, people were saying it long before this.
non-violence, n. In his 1936 Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru quotes Gandhi using the word non-violence in 1920. The word is a calque of the Sanskrit ahimsa, which appears in English writings about India as early as 1875. So while new to English, the concept and tradition of non-violence long predates Gandhi.
off-the-rack, adv. and adj. When this term first appeared in 1920 it had a slightly different meaning than how it is usually used today. It meant buying from the existing stock in a store rather than wait for a special order, and it could apply to all sorts of wares, not just clothing. The more specialized sense of non-tailor-made clothes appears in the 1960s.
palooka, n. This slang term for a clumsy or loutish person, or a mediocre prizefighter, appears in print for the first time in 1920, the same year that Ham Fisher began drawing the comic-strip character Joe Palooka. The word may come from the Polish surname Paluka.
paranormal, adj. and n. The years following World War I and the great flu pandemic were big ones for spiritualism and séances. They also saw the coining of this word, which appears in Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1920.
plus four, n. This style of knickerbocker trousers, now chiefly worn by golfers who want to affect a retro image, was all the fashion in the 1920s. The name comes from tailoring jargon and is a reference to the additional four inches of cloth needed to accomplish the characteristic overhang of the baggy pants. The idea that the name has something to do with golf handicaps is fallacious.
Ponzi scheme, n. Bernie Madoff was no innovator. He did nothing that Charles Ponzi hadn’t done in 1920.
psychopharmacology, n. Freud’s talk-therapy and hypnoanalysis weren’t the only innovations in psychiatry in the early years of the twentieth century. This term for the study of drugs and their effects on the mind and behavior was coined at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1920.
race-baiter, n. 1920 was smack in the middle of the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the rural south into the urban centers of the north. The move was accelerated by the boom in war-related jobs, and when these ended and soldiers returning from the front started seeking jobs, racial tensions rose. So it’s no surprise that a term for someone who instigates racial violence got its start in this year.
rebreather, n. A rebreather is a form of underwater breathing apparatus where instead of being exhaled, the air, which still contains significant levels of oxygen even after initial exhalation, is recirculated, scrubbed of carbon dioxide, and additional oxygen added. The first practical rebreathers appeared around 1900, but they didn’t get their name until 1920.
sexiness, n. By the standards of the twenty-first century, the films of 1920 were comparatively tame and chaste, at the time people were criticizing Hollywood for its overt sexiness.
shit, int. The verb and noun are much, much older, going back to the Old English scitel or scytel, meaning “dung.” But the second edition of the OED, published in 1989, doesn’t record the interjection as existing until 1920. I’m willing to bet that when the third edition reaches this word it will be significantly antedated. But even then, the print record will lag behind oral usage. Scatological interjections like this are just not the type of terms that are written down, and when they are it’s not likely in a place that will be preserved.
spot on, adv. and adj. This is one you don’t hear all that often in North America, but this British slang expression is written down for the first time in 1920.
sub-machine-gun, n. The war was over, but that didn’t slow the arms manufacturers. 1920 saw the debut of the Thompson gun, the first sub-machine-gun.
subprime, adj. and n. We associate this word with 2008, but it’s much older. The first use of subprime was in reference to food, that of inferior grade. In the 1970s, the word moved into the financial markets with the opposite meaning of how we use it today, a loan with a very favorable interest rate, below the prime rate. In 1993, the financial meaning of subprime radically shifted with the coming of the definition we’re familiar with today, a reference to the borrower being below par, not the rate.
sukiyaki, n. The year saw three items of Japanese cuisine make their way into the big dictionary. This, a dish of thinly sliced, fried beef, is one.
tempura, n. And this is the second, a dish of shrimp, fish, or vegetables battered and deep-fried.
T-shirt, n. This garment, so called because it’s shaped like the letter T, is first named in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. But in 1920, a T-shirt would never be worn as an outer garment as it is today.
udon, n. This is the third 1920 item of Japanese cuisine, a type of noodle made from wheat flour.
walkthrough, adj. and n. Originally, walkthrough denoted a type of structure that permitted access from two sides. It wasn’t until 1950 that the word came to mean a type of inspection.
wimp, n.2 This slang term for an ineffectual or weak person was first recorded in 1920. The origin is uncertain, but may come from the verb to whimper.
yippie, n. and int. This shout of joy is first recorded in Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 Main Street.
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