1940 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 445 words with first citations from 1940. In that year, a sitzkrieg reigned until April, when German paratroops airlanded in Norway and Denmark and E-boats started roving the North Sea and English Channel; R. A. F. pilots donned their Mae Wests and took to the skies to prevent the Luftwaffe from coventrating more British cities; and physicists began to talk openly about creating a superbomb.

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Events of 1940:

  • January: Britain begins food rationing.
  • February: Disney’s Pinocchio is released; the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry make their debut; four-year-old Tenzin Gyatso is recognized as the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama; Carbon-14 is discovered; Soviet theater producer Vsevolod Meyerhold, a devout Marxist, is executed for treason and espionage.
  • March: Truth or Consequences debuts on NBC Radio; Elmer Fudd makes his cartoon debut; over 25,000 Poles are executed by the Soviets in the Katyn Massacre; a Soviet-Finnish peace treaty is signed.
  • April: Germany invades Denmark and Norway; Booker T. Washington becomes the first African-American depicted on a U. S. postage stamp
  • May: On 10 May, Germany invades the Low Countries, Britain invades Iceland, Neville Chamberlain resigns, and Winston Churchill becomes prime minister of the U. K.; McDonalds opens its first restaurant in San Bernadino, California; German troops reach the English Channel, surrounding British and French forces; the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp opens in occupied Poland; the British Expeditionary Force begins to evacuate France at Dunkirk; anarchist Emma Goldman dies.
  • June: Italy declares war on France and Britain; France surrenders to Germany; Soviet troops occupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Germany occupies the Channel Islands; Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey and artist Paul Klee die.
  • July: British forces sink the French Mediterranean fleet; the Battle of Britain begins; Bugs Bunny makes his cartoon debut; the Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens; silent-film actor Ben Turpin dies.
  • August: Leon Trotsky is assassinated in Mexico; automobile-maker Walter Chrysler and chemist J. J. Thomson die.
  • September: the Luftwaffe bombs London for the first time; 17,000-year-old cave paintings are discovered at Lascaux, France; the U. S. begins the first peacetime draft in U. S. history; the U. S. bans scrap metal shipments to Japan.
  • October: Italy invades Greece, unsuccessfully; Atlantic convoys SC 7 and HX 79 lose thirty-two ships to German U-boat wolfpacks.
  • November: Franklin Roosevelt is elected U. S. president for an unprecedented third term; the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses spectacularly; the Royal Navy launches the first aircraft-carrier strike against the Italian fleet at Taranto; Disney’s Fantasia is released; Coventry is destroyed by German bombers; actor Tom Mix and former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain die.
  • December: Captain America makes his comic book debut; Glenn Seaborg isolates plutonium at the cyclotron at the University of California, Berkeley; President Roosevelt pledges the U. S. will be “the great arsenal of democracy;” writer F. Scott Fitzgerald dies.

The words of 1940:

airlanded, adj. (also airlanding, adj.) What is now dubbed “vertical envelopment” was a new feature of warfare in 1940.

autoload, n. No, this one wasn’t a military term in 1940. The original sense comes out of photography. Applying the word to guns and ammunition comes later.

baby blues, n.2 This sense of the term is post-natal depression. The sense meaning blue eyes is older, dating to the late-nineteenth century.

back scattering, n. In recent years this word has gotten a surge of use because of the installation of backscattering x-ray machines at U. S. airports, but the term dates to 1940 and the early development of radar.

bollocks, int. This British interjection is first recorded in 1940. Of course, like most such expressions it is undoubtedly older than the date it first appears in print.

cassoulet, n. This dish is named for the pot it is cooked in, “small stew-pan” in French.

con, n.5 This one surprised me; I never would have guessed it was this old. The con in question is the clipped form of convention. The usage dates to the Chicago Science Fiction Convention of 1940, or Chicon.

counter-intelligence, n. Counter-espionage dates to least 1899 and counter-spy makes its appearance a year earlier in 1939.

coventrate, v. The OED marks this verb as “temporary,” a designation I’ve never noticed in the dictionary before. To coventrate is to destroy a city by bombing, as Coventry was by the Luftwaffe in November 1940. Apparently the word was coined by the Luftwaffe aircrew and staff. The OED has no post-war citations of the verb.

crud, n. The earliest citations of the U. S. slang term refer to undesirable persons, but it quickly spread to encompass various diseases, particularly skin diseases suffered by servicemen in the South Pacific, bad food, or anything impure or dirty. [Sometimes over-reliance on a single source, even one as good as the OED, can result in errors. Crud has a much longer and more complex history than the OED indicates.]

Demerol, n. The trade name for the opiate pethidine or meperidine was coined in 1940. It’s used as an analgesic and as an anti-spasmodic drug.

discophile, n. The term for a collector of musical records makes its appearance.

E-boat, n. This is a WWII word, referring to a German torpedo boat. The reason for the E is unknown. Some have suggested that it is for Eile “speed,” but there is no evidence to support this and the usual German word for a fast boat is Schnellboot, not Eileboot.

ecdysiast, n. This word is a favorite among language writers because of who coined it, although it’s never been widely used. An ecdysiast is a strip-teaser, and the word was coined from Greek roots in 1940 by H. L. Mencken.

googol, n. This word for 10100 was coined by nine-year-old Milton Sirotta, nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner. The internet search company’s name is a play off it.

in-basket, n. (also out-basket, n.) This pair is recorded by American Speech in 1940. In-tray appears in Punch in 1941. In-box doesn’t appear until the 1950s.

intercom, n. We know this one as another staple of mid-twentieth century office equipment, but its first use is among RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain.

Jim Crow, n.2 No, not that Jim Crow. This one is a British term for a roof-top aircraft spotter. From either thieves’ cant for a look-out for from crow’s nest, this name for observers who provided warning of air raids was a favorite of Churchill’s, popularized and perhaps coined by him.

lexeme, n. This fundamental term of linguistics was coined by Benjamin Lee Whorf in 1940.

loo, n.4 There are several hints of the term for a water closet being around since the 1920s, such as Joyce’s line in the 1922 Ulysses, “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” But the first unambiguous use of loo in this sense is from Nancy Mitford’s 1940 Pigeon Pie, “In the night when you want to go to the loo.”

Mae West, n. The busty film star inspired this RAF slang term for an inflatable life jacket. During the war, use of the term spread to U. S. air forces.

mayo, n.3 This inevitable clipping of mayonnaise is first recorded in 1940.

Minox, n. Production of the miniature camera, a feature of many a spy movie, began in Latvia in 1938, but the name appears in English in 1940.

Molotov, n. Finns dubbed the gasoline bombs they used to disable Russian tanks after the Soviet foreign minister, who had said the Soviets would bring bread not bombs to Finland.

nitty-gritty, n. and adj. This reduplicative term got its start in African-American speech, and is first recorded by the mainstream press by the Pittsburgh Courier in coverage of a 1940 Joe Louis fight.

pair-bond, n. This zoological term for a relationship between two animals first appears in 1940.

paratroop, n. The German invasion of the Norway and Denmark in 1940 saw the first combat use of this new form of delivering soldiers to the battlefield. The more common paratrooper appears in 1941.

pasta fazool, n. This dish, literally “pasta and beans,” is an American respelling of the Neapolitan dialectal pasta e fasule, which in standard Italian is pasta e fagioli.

privatize, v. This is one OED entry that looks like it needs some work, despite having been updated for the third edition in 2007. The 1940 usage is in the sense of “to make personal, individual,” as opposed to a concern of the wider community. It doesn’t record the economic sense of “transfer property from public to private ownership” until 1959. Yet the dictionary has a citation of de-privatizing in reference to trade within the Soviet Union from 1932, and reprivatize in reference to a German bank from 1937. One would think the basic root on which this gerund and affixed-verb are based would have had some currency in the 1930s.

quisling, n. and adj. Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian Nazi collaborator, very quickly gained eponymous infamy following the German invasion.

Saran, n. The brand name of the plastic wrap was trademarked by Dow Chemical in 1940.

schnozz, n. The OED’s 1989 second edition cites this U. S. slang term for the nose from 1940. But it has a 1930 citation from Variety referring to entertainer Jimmy Durante’s schozzola [sic], and to the man himself as the Schnozzle. The word is apparently pseudo-Yiddish, similar to the actual Yiddish shnabl “beak” or the German Schnauze “snout.”

shazam, int. The interjection originally appears in Whiz Comics #2 with the appearance of the superhero Captain Marvel. By saying the word, which is an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, boy Billy Batson transforms himself into the hero.

sitzkrieg, n. This was a jocular name for the “phony war” that lasted on the Western Front from September 1939 to May 1940.

Stalag, n. The Germans had an extensive system of camps for enemy prisoners of war. These were divided into three types, Offizierslagers or Oflags for officers, Stammlagers or Stalags for enlisted soldiers, and Durchgangslagers or Dulags, transit camps where prisoners were temporarily housed before transfer to a permanent camp. There were also Internierungslagers or Ilags, where Allied civilians were detained. None of these are to be confused with the labor or death camps associated with the Holocaust. Of these terms, only Stalag has gained widespread and long-lasting use in English, probably because they were the most numerous and through films and television shows like Stalag 17 and Hogan’s Heroes.

stash, n.2 This U. S. clipping of mustache is recorded in 1940.

superbomb, n. In 1940, Austrian-British physicist Otto Frisch coined this term for a fission bomb. Later in the war, super and superbomb would be applied by American physicists working on the Manhattan Project to the prospects for a fusion bomb.

superduper, n. This slangy reduplication is recorded started in 1940.

tape recording, n. The term tape recorder, referring to a machine that records data on ticker tape, dates to 1892. The use of tape recorder in reference to audio dates to 1932. And finally in 1940 the tape recording appears.

undemanding, adj. A surprisingly late appearance.

West Nile, n. This flavivirus, originally endemic to East Africa, was dubbed in 1940.

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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