1941 Words

The Oxford English Dictionary has 416 words with first citations from 1941. In that year, the war really began to affect the English language. Lend-Lease began shipping jeeps and other war material from the U. S. around the world; R. A. F. pilots on recce hoped that gremlins would not prang their aircraft; military acronyms from radar to snafu were on everyone’s tongues; and people worried about saying too much on an open line. But not all was about the war. The year also bequeaths us cheesesteak and lox in the culinary arena; biodegradation and the Krebs cycle in biology; and the welfare state.

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Events of 1941:

  • January: Germany abandons the Blackletter Gothic typeface for official documents; Puerto Ricans born after 13 January 1941 are granted U. S. citizenship; the keel of the U. S. S. Missouri, the battleship on which Japan will surrender in 1945, is laid down in Philadelphia; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, dies.
  • February: The USO is created; Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel is given command of the Afrika Korps.
  • March: The Lend-Lease Act becomes law; the U. S. National Gallery of Art opens; Rommel goes on the offensive in North Africa; writer Virginia Woolf dies.
  • April: Germany invades Yugoslavia and Greece to bail out the failed Italian invasion of the latter; the U. S. S. Niblack drops depth charges on a German U-boat.
  • May: General Mills introduces CheeriOats cereal, later renamed CheeriOs; Citizen Kane premieres in New York City; the U. S. starts selling war bonds; Bob Hope performs in his first USO show; the Royal Navy captures the U-110 U-boat along with its Enigma cipher machine; German Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess parachutes into Scotland, claiming to be on a peace mission; N. Y. Yankee Joe DiMaggio begins his 56-game hitting streak; the German battleship Bismarck is sunk.
  • June: Germany invades the Soviet Union; baseball player Lou Gehrig, automaker Louis Chevrolet, composer and politician Jan Paderewski, and former emperor Wilhelm II of Germany die.
  • July: Britain forms the Special Air Service; President Roosevelt orders the seizure of all Japanese assets in the U. S.; musician Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton dies.
  • August: Roosevelt and Churchill sign the Atlantic Charter, setting Allied goals for the post-war period.
  • September: The siege of Leningrad begins; Britain and the Soviet Union force the resignation of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; the first Liberty ship, the S. S. Patrick Henry, is launched in Baltimore; German troops massacre nearly 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine.
  • October: The Soviet government decamps from Moscow; Disney’s Dumbo premieres; President Roosevelt approves $1 billion of Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union.
  • November: In the U. S., the King Biscuit Time blues program hits the airwaves, still on the air it is the longest-running, daily radio broadcast in history.
  • December: Two events pointed to eventual victory for the Allies in the war. In the first, the Soviet Union begins its counterattack against German troops at the gates of Moscow; second, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and the Philippines, bringing U. S. into the war.

The words of 1941:

apparatchik, n. This term for a member of the Soviet communist party is borrowed into English from Russian in 1941. Generalization to any political party of any country doesn’t happen until the late 1960s.

astrodome, n. No, this doesn’t refer to the domed stadium in Houston, Texas; that wasn’t built until 1964. In 1941 an astrodome was a transparent dome on top of an aircraft to allow for 360-degree observation.

batwoman, n. No, this isn’t a comic-book superheroine; it’s a female batman, or military orderly. Bat is an old word for a saddle, from the Latin bastum via French, and a batman is the soldier charged with the care of an officer’s personal equipment and uniforms, which in times past would have included the officer’s saddle. The influx of women into military service during the war necessitated a feminine version of the noun.

biodegradation, n. Because of the Manhattan Project and radar, we usually associate progress in the sciences during WWII with physics, but the biological sciences did not slow down either.

black marketeer, n. The only surprise is that this term didn’t appear during an earlier war.

callback, n. This noun started life as pollster jargon, denoting a follow-up inquiry. In the 1950s, the term spread to other endeavors. Surprising to me, callback isn’t recorded in entertainment circles, where it denotes an invitation for a second audition, until the late 1970s.

cheesesteak, n. This delicacy is strongly associated with Philadelphia, but the earliest citation in the OED is from an advertisement for Bill’s Meat Market in Chicago.

corpsman, n. A corpsman is a U. S. Navy medic. (Navy corpsmen also serve in U. S. Marine Corps units.) The OED dates the term to 1941, but it also has citations of hospital corpsman going back to 1901.

Euston Road, n. The short-lived School of Drawing and Painting existed on Euston Road in London from 1938–39, and the street gave its name to a group of English post-impressionist painters.

folic, adj. Folic acid, one of the B vitamins, was so dubbed in 1941 because the substance is abundant in green leaves.

FYI, phr. No, this one did not get its start in text messages. The initialism is found as early as 1941 in a Washington Post article.

game plan, n. This term for a strategy probably comes out of American football, but the first time it is recorded is in W. C. Fields’s 1941 film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

Gaullist, n. From the French Gaulliste, the word began as a term for followers of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces during World War II, but continued on in French post-war politics for those who supported de Gaulle’s conservative, nationalist policies.

green light, v. The noun is much older, but the verb meaning to authorize or approve an action is first recorded in 1941. We often associate greenlighting projects with Hollywood, but the earliest citation is political, a newspaper writing about how Congress “green-lighted legislation.”

gremlin, n. This term for a mythological entity who sabotages aircraft is first recorded among R. A. F. pilots in 1941, but the term may be older. The first citation in the OED, from Charles Patrick Graves’s 1941 Thin Blue Line reads as follows: “He wished that his instructor had never told him about the Little People—a mythological bunch of good and bad fairies originally invented by the Royal Naval Air Service in the Great War. [...] Those awful little people, the Gremlins, who run up and down the wing with scissors going ‘snip, snap, snip’ made him sweat.” The origin of the word is unknown, but it is probably patterned after goblin.

jeep, n. The word is older, first appearing in 1936 as the name of a mysterious creature in E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theater comic strip, which also featured Popeye the Sailor. By 1938 the word was in military use, denoting all sorts of vehicles and gadgets. But in 1941 jeep was applied for the first time to the familiar four-wheel-drive truck that we know and love.

joe, n.3 1941 is the year that the OED’s second edition (1989) has for this slang term for coffee, but the word is older. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from a 1930 dictionary of underworld slang. The origin is unknown, although it might be a playful variant of java. Joe was a particularly popular term in the U. S. Navy, but it may not have originated in the slang of that service.

juvie, n. This shortening of juvenile appears in 1941.

Krebs, n. Memorizing the Krebs cycle is a rite of passage for first-year biology students, and the pain goes back to 1941.

lend-lease, n. Lend-Lease was the popular name for U. S. Public Law 77-11, which allowed the U. S. government to supply the Allied nations with war material at no cost, provided the material be returned or destroyed at the end of hostilities. Between 1941 and 1945, the United States supplied the equivalent to over $600 billion in today’s dollars of equipment and supplies to the Allies, mostly to Britain and the Soviet Union.

Lou Gehrig, n. N. Y. Yankees first baseman Henry Louis Gehrig died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1941, and the disease has born his name ever since.

lox, n.2 From the Yiddish laks, which in turn is from the German Lachs, this term for smoked salmon begins to appear in English writing in 1941.

machismo, n. This word is from Mexican Spanish.

manicotti, n. The pasta name starts appearing in English writings about cookery in 1941.

New Criticism, n. This school of literary criticism, which had been underway since the 1920s, got its name with the 1941 publication of John Crowe Ransom’s book New Criticism. The movement focused on detailed textual analysis and close reading, rejecting historical influences and authorial biography.

open line, n. and adj. “Loose lips sink ships.” People in the 1940s were concerned about saying something they shouldn’t on an open line.

potty, n. A nursery term for chamber pot, this word appears as part of potty chair in 1941. The standalone potty appears in Berrey and Van Den Bark’s 1942 slang dictionary.

prang, v. This is R. A. F. slang meaning “to crash.” The origin is unknown. Some have suggested the Malay perang “war” as the origin, but that is almost certainly incorrect.

radar, n. Chances are if you are looking for an example of an acronym, radar (along with scuba) will be the one that is given. The U. S. Navy settled on the phrase radio detection and ranging for the technology in 1940, and within a year it had been shortened to radar. The American name is the one that caught on, even though it was the British RDF system, an initialism for radio direction-finding that dates to 1938, that was the first practical use of the technology.

recce, n. A British clipping of reconnaissance. The American recon is older, dating to 1918 and the previous war.

roger, int. (and n.5) U. S. military radio jargon for acknowledgement of a message. The term comes from the WWII-era phonetic alphabet in which roger stood for the letter R for “received.”

Shangri-La, n. James Hilton wrote his novel Lost Horizon about a utopian Tibetan lamasery in 1933, but the OED dates Shangri-La by its extended use denoting any earthly paradise, which was in place by 1941. The name was another favorite of Franklin Roosevelt. He dubbed the presidential retreat, which is now known as Camp David, Shangri-La, and in 1942 made a remark that the carrier-launched Doolittle Raid on Tokyo had originated from a U. S. base in Shangri-La. As a result of this remark, the aircraft carrier U. S. S. Shangri-La was commissioned in 1944. From lamasery to weapon of war in a little over ten years, talk about semantic drift.

snafu, phr., adj. and n. This is another U. S. military acronym, but a slang one. It stands for situation normal: all fucked up. The term is emblematic of both the confusion and ineptitude that is inevitably encountered in military service and the laconic acceptance of the same by the common soldier. Reference works often change the offending word to fouled, but that doesn’t fool anyone.

transsexuality, n. At first I was surprised by the appearance of this word in 1941, but as I thought about it, the surprise diminished; use of medical jargon often predates mainstream use by decades. But in the early 1940s, transsexuality did not mean what it does today; it referred to homosexuality or bisexuality.

V-sign, n. The sign, denoting victory, is made either by holding up the hand with palm outward and the first two fingers outstretched to form a V, by the Morse code representation of the letter • • • –, or by the use of the first four notes in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which correspond to the Morse signal. V and victory were ubiquitous elements of wartime English.

welfare state, n. The term for a network of state-run social services or a government that runs such a network dates to 1941.

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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