1923 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 492 words with first citations from 1923. In that year you could deplane from your autogiro, or revel in nummy taste treats like popsicles, Sanka, or Vegemite. You could look at a wirephoto, although its quality might require photointerpretation to determine what it was a picture of. In the way of entertainment, you could take in a show at the local grind house, dance the Charleston, or play a little Skee-ball. Science was bringing us cultivars, aerosols, and redshift. And on the world stage, the Haganah, Politburo, and Yugoslavians are first seen.

Events of 1923:

  • January: France and Belgium occupy the Ruhr to force Germany to make its reparation payments; the primarily black town of Rosewood, Florida is razed by the Ku Klux Klan, with eight dead; the Grouping Act combines 120 British railways into four.
  • February: Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen dies.
  • March: Lenin suffers a stroke and retires from public life; Canada hears the first-ever broadcast of a hockey game; the premiere issue of Time magazine is published; physicist Johannes van der Waals, chemist James Dewer, and actor Sarah Bernhardt die.
  • April: The first game is played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, with New York beating Boston 4–1 and former Red Sox player Babe Ruth hitting a 3-run homer; mathematician John Venn dies.
  • May: The Irish Civil War ends; the first 24-hour automobile race at Le Mans is run.
  • July: The Treaty of Lausanne establishes the borders of modern Turkey; Pancho Villa is assassinated.
  • August: U. S. President Warren Harding dies in office, succeeded by Calvin Coolidge.
  • September: The Great Kanto Earthquake, magnitude 7.9, kills over 140,000 in Japan; the first U. S. airship takes flight at Lakehurst, N. J.; The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney is released.
  • November: Adolf Hitler makes an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government in the Beer Hall Putsch; German hyperinflation reaches its peak, with one U. S. dollar equaling 4.2 trillion marks.
  • December: Cecil B. DeMille’s first and silent version of The Ten Commandments premieres; engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel dies.

The words of 1923:

aerosol, n. This term for ultrafine particles suspended in a gas was coined by physical chemists in 1923. It’s from aero + sol[ution].

autogiro, n. Nowadays, more people are probably familiar with the autogiro from The Simpsons than from actually seeing one. In the 1995 episode “Mother Simpson,” Mr. Burns says, “I’d like to send this letter to the Prussian consulate in Siam by aeromail.  Am I too late for the 4:30 autogiro?” But in 1923 the autogiro was at the cutting edge of aviation technology. Similar to a helicopter in appearance, so much so that many people mistake them for one, the autogiro was invented and named by Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva.

Bauhaus, n. The name of the school of architecture, which German architect Walter Gropius had founded in 1919, made its way into English four years later. In German, the word literally means “building-house.”

Charleston, n. Perhaps nothing epitomizes the decade of the Roaring Twenties as much as the Charleston. The wildly popular dance is named for Charleston, South Carolina and first appeared in the 1923 Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. The choreography is imitative of the popular African-American Juba or hambone dance, repackaged to appeal to white audiences.

comfort zone, n. When introduced in 1923, this term referred to home heating. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the phrase began to be applied metaphorically.

cultivar, n. This horticultural term refers to a variety of plant that originated in cultivation and is not a natural variety.

debunk, v. This verb was coined by W. E. Woodward in his 1923 novel Bunk.

deplane, v.2 (also emplane, v.) Often derided as an unnecessary neologism by language peevers, this word is much older than many think.

fundamentalism, n. While its adherents claim to get back to the origins and basics of spirituality, both the term fundamentalism and its doctrines are comparatively recent developments.

grind house, n. A grind house was an inexpensive cinema that showed movies, often poor quality ones, continuously, twelve hours a day and sometimes more. The name first appears in Variety in 1923, and may have been coined by the editors of that paper. The grind refers to the work required to show movies continuously all day long.

Haganah, n. This word, Hebrew “defense,” was the name of a Jewish paramilitary group that operated in Palestine from 1920–48. The name began to appear in British newspapers in 1923.

hitch-hike, v. Many words we associate today with automobiles (e. g., bus, dashboard, lorry) go back to the days of horse-drawn transport, but not this one, which appears a couple of decades after the advent of the car. Although I’m pretty sure that people did hitch rides on wagons.

hot diggety dog, int. I just think it’s kind of cool that hot diggety dog is actually in the OED. Also of note is that the first citation in the dictionary is by cartoonist T. A. “TAD” Dorgan, who gained a reputation as an early adopter and publicizer of slang.

intro, n. This clipped form of introduction is first recorded in 1923. 

junkie, n. The 1920s will be forever associated with Prohibition and illicit alcohol, but there were narcotics back then too.

mass media, n. Another term that shows the post-WWI years were the highpoint for innovation in business and when our consumer-oriented culture was created.

mastectomy, n. The 1923 date here is surprising. The entry is relatively new (third edition, 2001) and should reflect searches of digital archives, but the first modern mastectomy was performed by American surgeon William Halsted in 1882. So either there was a significant change in terminology or the OED can be significantly antedated here.

nummy, adj. and n. This adjective meaning delicious is also from this year.

Park Avenue, n. It was about this time that Park Avenue, a New York City street noted for its wealthy residents, began to be used attributively for things associated with the well to do.

photointerpretation, n. This discipline got its start with aerial reconnaissance in the First World War, but it wasn’t until 1923 that it got its name.

Politburo, n. The Politburo of the Communist Party of Russia was first formed in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1923, after the establishment of the Soviet Union, that the term made its way into English.

popsicle, n. The name for this icy taste-treat was first trademarked in 1923.

reader-response, n. Another odd OED entry. The big dictionary includes the first citation, from 1923, under the heading “Literary Theory,” but the quotation in question is clearly about the effectiveness of newspaper advertising. The school of reader-response literary criticism, which emphasizes how readers receive and experience a text over the social and cultural factors influencing the author, didn’t really get going until the 1960s.

redshift, n. Around this time astronomers were beginning to understand that observed light from distant objects was shifted in wavelength toward the longer, or redder, frequencies due to the Doppler effect. In 1923, astronomer Arthur Eddington wrote about “the red shift in the spiral nebulae.”

Sanka, n. Decaffeinated coffee was invented in 1903, and the Sanka brand has been in use in France since 1910.  The brand was trademarked in the U. S. in 1923. The name is from the French “sans caféine.”

sax, n.2 This clipping of saxophone is first recorded in 1923.

Skee-Ball, n. This arcade favorite is first recorded in 1923, although the name is probably a few years older as the game was invented in 1909 and has been marketed since 1914. The name comes from the hump that propels the ball into the air, which resembles a ski-jump.

sky-writing, n. All those pilots trained in the war were looking for ways to apply their skills. In a moment of diegogarcity, I was reading Virginia Woolf’s 1925 Mrs. Dalloway last week, and there is a scene where Londoners, fascinated by this new form of advertising, stop what they’re doing and try to puzzle out what product a sky-writer is advertising.

Vegemite, n. This Australian spread made from yeast extract was trademarked in 1923. Its name is modeled on Marmite, which dates to 1902.

wirephoto, n. Western Union sent the first facsimile image over telegraph wires in 1921, and the process acquired its name in 1923. Although there were earlier processes such as the 1895 Telediagraph and the 1913 Belinograph, which used dedicated circuits and telephone lines respectively. The early processes were of extremely poor quality and very slow. It wasn’t until 1929 that a fast and high-quality wirephoto process was developed. By the mid-1930s, wirephotos became a standard feature in newspaper stories.

yenta, n. From a Yiddish personal name, a yenta is a gossip or busybody.

Yugoslavian, adj. and n. The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed in 1918, in the wake of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the war. The country wouldn’t be officially named Yugoslavia until 1929, but by 1923 this adjective describing the country was already in place.

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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