world war

One question that pops up on this site’s discussion forum from time to time is when did World War I get its number? When did people start to refer to that war as the first (as opposed to only)?

The term world war appears in the Westminster Gazette of 8 April 1909, in reference to a hypothetical future war involving the great nations of Europe: the type of dirigible by which in a world-war...360,000 German troops could be transported from Calais to Dover in half an hour.

The use of world war to refer to the 1914-18 war began as early as the first year of that conflict. From Bernard Vaughan’s 1914 What of To-Day?:

What the South African War failed to teach I really believe this world-war will bring home to us.

The number was also added in 1914, obviously in hypothetical use indicating that the 1914-18 conflict was not the “war to end all wars.” Ernst Haeckel writing in the Indianapolis Star of 20 September 1914:

There is no doubt that the course and character of the feared “European war”...will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.

The Manchester Guardian made the first reference to a hypothetical World War 2 in an 18 February 1919 headline. Time magazine was the first to dub the 1939-45 conflict as World War II; from the 11 September 1939 issue:

Some of the diplomatic juggling which last week ended in World War II was old-fashioned international jockeying for power.

The term Great War was originally a reference to the Napoleonic Wars. It appears first in the title of Richard D. Blackmore’s 1887 Springhaven: A Tale of the Great War. Use of the Great War in reference to the 1914-18 war is from the start of that conflict. From the October 1914 Maclean’s Magazine:

Some wars name themselves...This is the Great War.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Yale Book of Quotations)

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