1926 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 529 words with first citations from 1926. In that year, you could get meals on wheels, but that was rarely haute cuisine. Medicine became holistic, and drugs became non-prescription. Aging Hollywood co-stars of quickies could get facelifts to up their chances of finagling their way into a leading role. And Q-tips and Levi’s were available for sale. 

Events of 1926:

  • January: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll put their blackface comedy routine on the radio with Sam ‘n’ Henry, a precursor to their more famous Amos ‘n’ Andy.
  • February: Francisco Franco is promoted to the rank of general.
  • March: Robert Goddard launches the first liquid-fuel rocket.
  • April: Fowler’s Modern English Usage is published.
  • May: Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett claim to have flown over the North Pole (a 1996 examination of his diary showed that Byrd altered his original navigational data and probably did not reach the Pole); three days after Byrd’s flight, Roald Amundsen makes an uncontested flight over the North Pole; evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappears on the Venice, California beach; the U. S. Air Commerce Act requires licensing of pilots and regulation of air traffic.
  • June: Aimee Semple McPherson is found in the Mexican desert, claiming to have been kidnapped, but widely believed to have run off with a lover; artist Mary Cassatt dies.
  • July: The U. S. National Bar Association is formed; Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of the president, dies.
  • August: Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel; actor Rudolph Valentino dies.
  • September: Lebanon gets its first constitution, but remains occupied by France.
  • October: A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh is published; magician Harry Houdini dies.
  • November: U. S. Route 66 is established; sharpshooter Annie Oakley dies.
  • December: Japanese Emperor Hirohito takes the throne; artist Claude Monet and poet Rainer Maria Rilke die.

The words of 1926:

airtime, n. I should probably stop including broadcasting jargon terms on these lists. I think the point has been made.

angioplasty, n. More linguistic evidence that the decade of the 1920s was a period of major advancement in medicine.

biggie, n. This U. S. slang term originally referred to important people. By the 1940s, it was being used to refer to anything important.

booty, n.3 Today we associate this word for sexual intercourse or the female genitalia with rap music, but as we can see it’s much older. It’s an African-American slang term, first recorded in print in 1926. (Green’s Dictionary of Slang records a c. 1908 jazz song entitled She’s Got Good Booty.) Booty’s exact origin is a bit uncertain, but it was almost certainly from or influenced by: botty, a slang abbreviation for bottom or the buttocks; batty, an Afro-Caribbean term for buttocks; and the sense of booty meaning plunder or spoils of war.

capacitor, n. In the world of electrical engineering, a capacitor is a device that stores electrical energy. Capacitors weren’t anything new in 1926, but prior to this they had usually been called condensers. The new term was coined to avoid confusion with other types of condensors, such as those on steam engines.

corgi, n. The name for this breed of dog, literally “dwarf-dog” in Welsh, first appears in 1926.

co-star, n. Billing has always been an issue of great importance among those in the theater. In 1926, this further gradation of stardom was created.

downturn, n. The 1920s were generally good economic times for the English-speaking world, but that didn’t stop them from coining this one.

exclusivity, n. Although exclusiveness is a couple centuries older.

expandable, adj. This word is first recorded in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Fowler recommends using expandable rather than expansible.

facelift, n. Yet another word we associate with a later era.

finagle, v. I found a word that the OED has missed. The dictionary says verb to finagle is first recorded in 1926, cited in Wentworth’s 1944 American Dialect Dictionary. It’s from the English dialect verb fainaigue “to cheat.” But Wentworth has an earlier citation of a related word that is not in the OED, finagler, dating perhaps as early as 1915.

fridge, n. This abbreviation for refrigerator is found starting in 1926. The following brand name may have influenced its adoption.

Frigidaire, n. This brand of refrigerators hit the market in 1926.

Geechee, n. This term is a name for the Sea Island Creole English dialect spoken by African-Americans from the coasts and coastal islands of Georgia, more commonly called Gullah. Geechee comes from the name of the Ogeechee River. It’s also a derogatory term for an African-American, especially a rural, uneducated one.

genome, n. Most people know this word from the Human Genome Project, which got underway in 1990 and finished mapping the human genotype in 2003. But the word is much older.

gig, n.6 The word gig has several quite different senses. The one in question here is the sense of a musical job or performance. Where it comes from and its relation to the other types of gig, if any, are unknown.

gimmick, n. Originally, a gimmick was a device used to rig a gambling game. It has since expanded in meaning to encompass any ingenuous gadget or idea, in particular one that attracts public notice. The origin is unknown, but it has been suggested that it is from the magician’s jargon gimac, an anagram of magic that means gadget or thing-a-ma-bob and is used in the execution of an illusion. This use of gimac is recorded in 1934, but since magicians seldom discuss their craft with outsiders, it very well may be older.

haute cuisine, n. We’ve seen many examples of words for and brand names of junk food so far on the list, but the more refined palates also have their own jargon.

holistic, adj. We tend to associate this with recent, New Agey, medical quackery, but the word is older.

Hollywood, n. This metonym for the U. S. film industry came into being in 1926. It’s from the neighborhood in Los Angeles where many of the studios are located.

ionosphere, n. Unlike other types of words, it is often possible to precisely pinpoint the coinage of scientific and technical terms. The ionosphere is a region of the upper atmosphere (beginning around 30 mi/50 km) where solar radiation ionizes the air. This region became important in the 1920s because radio waves refract off of it, allowing radio signals to travel great distances. Ionosphere was coined in a 1926 letter by British engineer Robert Watson-Watt, who would later head up development of radar.

kitsch, n. This word for inferior, tasteless art was adopted from the German in 1926.

lanthanide, n. This name for the rare earth elements was probably coined by Swiss-Norwegian chemist Victor Moritz Goldschmidt writing in German in 1925. The lanthanides are the elements from 57 through 71 on the periodic table. The name comes from lanthanum, element 57. Sometimes lanthanum is excluded from the series.

Levi’s, Levis, n. The myth, promulgated by the firm’s advertising, that Levi Strauss and Company got its start selling blue jeans to miners in the 1849 California gold rush is not true; the company didn’t even exist then. It was founded in 1853 in San Francisco. In 1873, the firm patented the use of copper rivets to strengthen fabric of its denim overalls at key points, such as the corners of pockets, and it started making what we now know as blue jeans in the 1920s. By 1926, the term Levi’s had become established as a synonym for denim clothing. The company trademarked Levi’s in 1928.

meals on wheels, n. This phrase got its start not as a food delivery service for shut-ins, but as a restaurant delivery service. (Actually, the phrase appears in advertising for railroad dining cars as early as 1903, but that’s a different context. Why the OED included this usage only in a note and not in as a sense of the phrase is a mystery.) The services providing food for shut-ins didn’t hit the road until the late-1940s.

mentoring, n. Mentoring is a big buzzword in the business world nowadays. But the idea dates back to the 1920s, when its use was mainly confined to coaching and sports.

mothball, v. The figurative use phrase in mothballs to refer to military or other equipment placed in long-term storage dates to 1916. But the verb didn’t come into service until a decade later.

non-prescription, adj. The 1926 example in the OED refers to “non-prescription liquor.” I’d really like to see the wider context.

Ogopogo, n. This alleged Canadian lake monster was first seen cruising the waters of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia in 1926. Supposedly, Native-American folklore recounts earlier sightings, but one must be very careful with such folk tales; frequently they are modern repurposings of unrelated stories if not downright fabrications. The name is an arbitrary coinage, and not a Native-American name as one might guess.

outsmart, v. Not much to say here. At first I was bit surprised, thinking it should be earlier, but upon considering the colloquial nature of the verb, a 1920s date seems about right.

Q-tip, n. A proprietary name for a cotton swab. The swabs themselves date to a few years earlier. The Q stands for quality.

quickie, n. and adj. This one started out as Hollywood jargon for a quickly and cheaply made film. By 1933 it was being used generically for anything made or consumed quickly. Based on the citations in the OED, the sexual sense appears to have gotten its start in the 1970s. Although the OED does not break the sexual sense out under a separate heading, and in such cases one must be wary of attaching etymological significance to the editor’s choice of particular citations. They are not always representative of when specific sub or regional senses came into being.

racism, n. (and racist, n. and adj.) New words, but hardly new concepts. Before 1926, racialism was the term of art.

skeet, n.2 The sport of shooting clay pigeons got its name in 1926. The word is a modern formulation harkening back to the Old English verb sceotan “to shoot.”

totalitarian, adj. and n. (also totalitarianism, n.) Given the existence of the Soviet Union, the rise of Mussolini in Italy, and the appearance of the Nazi Party in Germany, it’s no surprise that this term was coined in 1926.

vibraphone, n. This musical instrument, similar to a xylophone but with metal bars instead of wood, got its name in 1926.

withershins, widdershins, adj. This word, meaning anti-clockwise, first appears in D. H. Lawrence’s 1926 The Plumed Serpent.

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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