Words of 1938

The Oxford English Dictionary has 455 words with first citations from 1938. In that year, hep cats were grooving to rock ‘n’ roll and the bunny hop; baba ganoush, cheeseburgers, and coq au vin started appearing on menus; electroshock was not simply something you might experience at Lubyanka; Messerschmitts, flak, and battle-dress made their debut; and Munich was on everyone’s mind.

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Events of 1938:

  • January: The March of Dimes is established to fight polio; Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town is first performed; German War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg resigns after revelation that his new trophy wife had posed for pornographic pictures taken by a Jewish lover; Benny Goodman and his orchestra become the first jazz musicians to play Carnegie Hall.
  • February: Hitler abolishes the war ministry and takes direct control of the German armed forces after newly appointed War Minister Werner von Fritsch is accused of homosexual activities; a nylon-bristled toothbrush becomes the first product to use the synthetic fiber; tire-maker Harvey Firestone and David King Udall, founder of a U. S. political dynasty, die.
  • March: Oil is discovered in Saudi Arabia; Germany annexes Austria; France assures Czechoslovakia that it will honor its treaty obligations to aid that country in the event of a German invasion; General von Fritsch is cleared of charges of homosexual activities and remains loyal to the Nazi regime (he is killed by Polish fire in the opening days of World War II); attorney Clarence Darrow dies.
  • April: Britain agrees to recognize Italian control of Ethiopia in return for a withdrawal of Italian troops from Spain at the conclusion of the civil war; Superman appears in Action Comics #1; jazz musician Joe “King” Oliver dies.
  • May: Czechoslovakia partially mobilizes its armed forces; Hitler at first states he has no territorial ambitions in Czechoslovakia, but then mobilizes German armed forces and pledges to destroy that nation.
  • June: Lázló Biró patents the ball-point pen in the U. K.; Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling in the first round of their rematch.
  • July: Howard Hughes flies around the world in ninety-one hours; aviator Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan attempts to fly from New York to California, but lands in Ireland instead. (It’s widely suspected that the flight was deliberate after Corrigan had been denied permission to attempt the transatlantic crossing, but he never copped to it.)
  • August: Under pressure by advancing Japanese troops Chiang Kai-shek moves his government to Chongqing; German Army Chief of Staff Colonel General Ludwig Beck resigns due to prospects of war over Czechoslovakia.
  • September: American Ambassador to France William Bullitt hints that the U. S. will go to war with Germany if it invades Czechoslovakia; five days later President Roosevelt denies this at a press conference; a flurry of negotiations over the Czechoslovakian situation takes place, culminating in a summit meeting at Munich on 28–29 September where Germany, Italy, Britain, and France agree to cede the Sudetenland to Germany, Czechoslovakia is not party to the negotiations; Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returns to Britain announcing “peace for our time;” writer Thomas Wolfe dies.
  • October: Germany occupies the Sudetenland and starts planning for the occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia; Winston Churchill condemns the Munich agreement; foreign volunteers begin to withdraw from the Spanish Civil War; Germany expels 12,000 Polish Jews living in Germany; Poland only accepts 4,000 Jewish refugees, forcing 8,000 to live in the no-man’s land along the border; the U. S. establishes the minimum wage; Orson Welles broadcasts his adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds; cartoonist E. C. Segar, creator of Popeye, dies.
  • November: Seabiscuit defeats War Admiral at Pimlico; Churchill narrowly escapes being expelled from Parliament; Kristallnacht, Nazi forces loot and burn Jewish businesses throughout Germany; Kate Smith sings Irving Berlin’s God Bless America for the first time on her radio show; Mustafa Kemal Atatürk dies.
  • December: The U. S. makes a $25 million war loan to China; France allegedly assures Germany that it recognizes Eastern Europe as a German sphere of influence; a coelacanth, believed to have been extinct for millions of years, is caught off the coast of South Africa; Czech writer Karel Čapek dies.

The words of 1938:

angiocardiography, n. This medical technique, pioneered in 1938, uses an intravenous injection of an opaque fluid to make the heart and thoracic blood vessels visible on x-rays.

baba ganoush, n. This Lebanese dish of roasted and pureed eggplant (aubergine), garlic, and tahini found its way onto western palates in this year.

battle-dress, n. Battle-dress is a soldier’s regular, duty uniform for service in the field. The word makes its appearance in 1938 and will get a workout in the years to come.

BBQ, n. This abbreviation for barbeque makes its debut.

boo-boo, n. You gotta love the OED. Under this word it reads “Cf. owie, n.”

bunny hop, n. This dance was a fad in 1938 and again in the early 1950s.

cheeseburger, n. The journal American Speech records cheeseburger in 1938, but this OED entry is from the 1989 second edition, before the advent of large-scale digital archives. I bet it can be antedated, but given that the first cite is from American Speech, probably by not more than a few years.

coq au vin, n. This term, literally “cock in wine” in French, starts appearing in English-language cookbooks around this year.

Dilantin, n. A proprietary name for the anti-convulsive drug phenytoin, Dilantin is registered with the U. S. government in 1938.

double take, n. A delayed and exaggerated reaction of surprise, this term appears in 1938. Early uses are often, but not exclusively, associated with Hollywood films.

double talk, n. I found an egregious error in the OED in this entry from the second edition. Under the derivative double-talk v. (intr.) none of the eight citations listed are verbs. They are nouns and in one case an adjective. But the 1938 date seems to be correct.

electroshock, n. This term for the use of electrical shocks to treat mental illness appears in 1938, at the dawn of modern use of the technique. Once widely used, electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy is now only used for cases of severe depression that don’t respond to drug therapy and a few other rare conditions.

expressway, n. This U. S. term for a highway is cited in the OED from 1938, but that citation is actually for express highway. The earliest cite in the dictionary for expressway proper is from 1945.

fave, n. and adj. This abbreviation of favorite appears in the pages of Variety in 1938.

flak, n. This acronym for an anti-aircraft gun appears in the 1938 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Its English use would become common in the upcoming war. It’s from the German Fliegerabwehrkanone “flyer defense gun.”

fudgsicle, n. This chocolate taste treat, formed after popsicle, appears by 1938.

hep-cat, n. The U. S. slang adjective hep “stylish, smart, up-to-date,” dates to 1908 and is of unknown origin. And cat in the sense of “a devotee of jazz” was being used by 1932. By 1938, the words were melded and fans of jazz and swing music were being called hep-cats.

hepster, n. Another term for hep-cat. The hipster spelling would appear by 1941.

itsy-bitsy, n. Another term that the OED records as appearing in 1938, although there are a couple of appearances in the Library of Congress’s 1937 Catalog of Copyright Entries. I would have thought the song The Itsy-Bitsy Spider was older, and indeed it is, but the version with the lyrics containing itsy-bitsy isn’t set down until 1947.

Lubyanka, n. This Moscow street, infamous for the prison and headquarters of the Soviet secret police headquarters located on it, makes its English appearance.

matte, n.3 This cinematographic technique of using a mask to obscure part of an image so another image can be overlaid on top dates to 1938.

Messerschmitt, n. Willy Messerschmitt was a German aircraft designer who in 1937 introduced what would become one of the most successful fighter plane designs of the upcoming war, the Bf-109. Within a year the word Messerschmitt had entered the English lexicon to denote of his planes, especially the Bf-109.

mud-wrestle, n. The form of low-brow entertainment makes its debut, although the OED records mud-wrestler from 1936.

Munich, n. The biggest international event of the year, the Munich conference in September 1938 would become infamous as a synonym for appeasement and weak-willed diplomacy.

Nescafé, n. The brand of instant coffee was trademarked in 1938.

nylon, n. and adj. Du Pont began using this name for a new type of synthetic fiber, but it deliberately did not trademark it.

photojournalism n. (and photojournalist, n.) The new breed of journalism that centered on photographs got its name in 1938.

pot, n.5 This slang name for marijuana is recorded in 1938. The origin of the term is unknown.

private eye, n. and adj. The term private investigator dates to earlier in the century, and eye has been used metaphorically for one who watches on behalf of another since Wyclif’s fourteenth-century translation of the Bible. But in his 1938 crime novel Dime Detective Raymond Chandler punned on both terms and created the private eye.

pro-family, adj. This term is older than the current U. S. conservative political movements that use it, but in 1938 it had a rather different meaning. It referred to government policies aimed at supporting women’s roles in politics and providing government aid to families with children.

rock ‘n’ roll, n. and adj. Yes, this one dates to the 1930s, but the style of music it referred to back then isn’t the same as today. In 1934, songwriter Sidney Clare penned “Rock and Roll,” which had the lyrics:

Rock and roll, roll and rock away,
Up and down, round and round we’ll sway
With each swell
In the spell
Of the rollin’rockin’ rhythm of the sea.

In 1938, Kay and Sue Werner wrote the song “Rock it for Me,” which included the line, “so won’t you satisfy my soul with a rock an’ roll.” And the following year ballroom-dancer Irene Castle invented a step she called the Rock and Roll, which achieved a measure of popularity. Use of the term to denote the style of popular music we know today dates to 1954.

Sadie Hawkins, n. In November 1937 Cartoonist Al Capp used the term Sadie Hawkin’s Day in his Li’l Abner strip, to denote a footrace organized by Sadie’s father between his daughter, the “homeliest gal in all them hills,” and all the eligible bachelors of the town of Dogpatch. Whichever bachelor she caught would have to marry her. The other spinsters in Dogpatch thought this was a good idea and it became an annual tradition. By the next November, Sadie Hawkins was being used outside the context of the comic strip to refer to any social event, often a dance, where women were expected to take the initiative and ask men to attend.

scattergram, n. This contraction of scatter diagram starts appearing in the speech of statisticians in 1938.

self-medicated, adj. The adjective is recorded in 1938, but it’s likely that physicians were using it before that date.

Stammtisch, n. Not every word borrowed from German in the 1930s had to do with Nazis or the coming hostilities. A Stammtisch is a table in a German Gasthaus, restaurant, or beer hall that is reserved for regular customers. Stamm is literally “tree trunk,” but is used metaphorically for “cadre, regular customer.” And Tisch is “table.”

superette, n. A small supermarket is an oxymoron, but this term for one starts appearing in 1938.

thermonuclear, adj. Physicists started discussing thermal nuclear reactions in 1937, and within a year the term thermonuclear had arisen.

winterize, v. When I moved from California to Toronto, I learned the hard way the importance of winterizing your car. The verb is recorded in the journal American Speech in 1938.

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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