Stormtrooper, dogtag, climax: A look at words that turn 100 this year | more lifestyle | Hindustan Times
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Stormtrooper, dogtag, climax: A look at words that turn 100 this year

Dictionary entries from 1918 reflect the legacy of war, the evolution of cinema, new technology and ways in which sex was finally exiting the bedroom.

more lifestyle Updated: Mar 31, 2018 09:50 IST
Rachel Lopez
(HT Illustration: Sudhir Shetty)

Where do words come from? We’ll give you a clue. ‘Clue’ comes from the medieval word ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread. In Greek mythology, it was this kind of thread that helped the warrior Theseus mark his way through the maze-like labyrinth to battle the Minotaur.

Minotaurs – part-bull, part-man – were jumbo-sized. ‘Jumbo’ itself comes from the name of an African elephant who was born in the 1860s and wowed crowds in England, France and North America. And why ‘Jumbo’? It’s possibly a corruption of the west-African word for elephant: nazamba.

How words get into a dictionary
  • For decades, lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary would look for new as-yet-undefined words in books, periodicals and popular use. They’d determine if it was widespread, meant the same thing in every use, and had staying power. Then they’d craft a definition.
  • These days, popular films, songs and slang are all up for consideration. Special attention is paid to existing words with new meanings – like ‘hashtag’.
  • Many words just walk over from other languages: ‘emoji’ (Japanese), gung-ho’ (Mandarin). Some just get cobbled together: ‘cronut’, ‘bromance’.

Some words have twisty, intriguing histories. When millennials talk about freelancing, few know that the word using is medieval and a former term of war — ‘freelance’ used to be the term for a mercenary warrior whose lance was not sworn to any kingdom, and hence ‘free’ for hire by the highest bidder.

Words change too. ‘Stew’, which now means a long-boiled dish of meat or vegetables, also meant a whorehouse in the 14th century.

Lexicographers updating the dictionary even 100 years ago had their hands full. The Oxford English Dictionary added 333 new words in 1918. In America, Merriam-Webster added 191.

Many overlapped and many were formally defined for the first time. Not only was the world inching painfully and hungrily towards the end of a war, the English language itself was furiously keeping up with advancements in film, aviation and society. These were words born in the trenches; on the battlefields amid new weapons; in the theatres for moving images, which were barely 20 years old; and in bedrooms across both continents, where medicine was ushering in modernity. See some of what’s stuck on a century later.

First World War: You might think the term developed around the time of World War 2, but it was first recorded in the closing months of this one, in a diary entry from September 10, 1918. It was usually referred to as the Great War or the War To End Wars at this time, but someone clearly knew there was more to come.

Defeatist: By 1918, the war had dragged on for four years, leaving everyone exhausted. This word was used to describe pacifists and those ready to lose if it meant an end to the fighting. It’s still used in a martial context, except today’s battles aren’t fought on land, sea and air; instead, this is now a terrible attitude to have in the boardroom.

Devalue: Where there’s war, there are expenses, financial losses and debt. Devalue was first formally used for currency in 1918. Last year’s most devalued currencies came from Venezuela, Egypt and Argentina. But the fall of the British pound after the vote for Brexit remains the steepest devaluing of a major currency in recent times.

Delouse: Cooties or body lice entered the lexicon the previous year, originating in war trenches where soldiers seldom had the opportunity to bathe. Clearly a problem with a solution, ‘delouse’ was coined the following year.

Mass grave: The high death toll from the war birthed the unfortunate term. It would have a very different meaning by the end of the Second World War.

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, etching and aquatint by Otto Dix from Der Krieg, 1924.

Stormtrooper: The Kaiser’s elite, handpicked and specially trained German infantrymen were collectively called Stormtroops; sing. stormtrooper. Of course all that changed in 1977, when a film called Star Wars introduced an army of white footsoldiers with lousy aim and changed forever the image that pops into your head when you hear the word Stormtrooper.

Whizz-bang: Deadly new weapons don’t always have deadly words to describe them. One small, swift shell from a German gun travelled faster than sound – so you could hear it ‘whizz’ past before it did its damage.

Head-hunter: In the 1800s, this was a savage who collected human heads for rituals. A century later, the term started to mean one who identifies and recruits workers for jobs, especially for specialised tasks during the war.

Interview: A face-to-face meeting used by military recruiters to identify potential among enlisted Britons, in 1918. A few years after the war, it came to mean a personal meeting to discuss any hiring or employment.

Breakthrough: While we’ve been ‘breaking through’ barriers since the 1400s, breakthrough as a military term made it into the books at the end of the war. By the 1930s it was a common way to describe a burst of progress.

Shimmy:In 1917, Spencer Williams released a dance number titled ‘Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble’. By the following year, Shaking the Shimmy, a dance combining the foxtrot with a shaking of the shoulders, was all the rage. The word quickly became a term for any suggestive dance.

Welfare: In 1904, the word covered the well-being of children and the unemployed. By 1918, with the war squeezing pockets dry, it got a new meaning — ‘an organised effort to provide for maintenance of members of a group’.

West: Not the direction, the geopolitical grouping. The term was first recorded in 1918 to distinguish Britain, France and Italy from Russia.

Armistice: From the Latin for stoppage of arms; when an agreement was signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, it was called the Armistice. It marked the cessation of battle. Algeria’s armistice with France in 1962 is the most recent instance.

Dog-tag: Soldiers have been carrying identification since the Spartans wrote their names on sticks tied to their wrists. Metal IDs were introduced by the British Army in 1907. But it’s the US Army’s twin aluminum tags, stamped with the wearer’s name and serial number, adopted in 1918, that became and has remained the standard.

Bob:That short haircut for women emerged in 1918, when it was seen as radical. Indian hairdressers gave women bob-cuts until well into the 1980s.

Friendly fire: This term was first used in a report in the New York Times on Oct 18, 1918, for when soldiers come under fire from members of the same army. Other wartime terms that made it to the dictionary include ‘line of duty’, ‘biological weapon’ and ‘triage’.

Sex Drive: The term dates back to 1918, but the rise of psychoanalysis during the period means we had sex on our minds in different ways. Anthropologists started using ‘sex symbol’ in 1871 (it didn’t get popular until the 1950s with Marilyn Monroe). ‘Sexual cravings’ came into use in 1900, ‘sex object’ by the following year and ‘sex appeal’ by 1904. By 1942, it was common to ‘sex up’ products to make them appealing. ‘Sex therapist’ however, didn’t come into use until 1974.

Climax: Coined in the sexual sense by birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes in her book Married Love, which challenged the idea that it was improper for a woman to enjoy sex. The book that became so popular it went through six reprints in its first year. Stopes used ‘climax’ because many of her readers would have not been familiar with ‘orgasm’.

Microclimate: By the 19th century, data and research made it possible to compare the climates of small areas and study how and why they differed from others in the same region. Microclimate was coined in 1918 and is used to this day to study how climate change affects land and life.

Multistory: Strangely, ‘skyscraper’ is older, from 1888, three years after the world’s first one was completed in Chicago. It was only 10 floors high. The 1918 term multistory, however, refers to any structure with more than two levels.

Fade-out: Filmmaking was still new in the early years of the previous century. Early filmmakers initially placed an aperture in front of their lens to let the scene emerge from a hole in the screen. This ‘iris effect’ soon gave way to fades — in which scenes would end by dissolving into darkness, like the lights slowly going out on a theatre stage.

Retake: With cinema, actors weren’t performing live. There was room for re-dos. Hence the ‘retake’.

Lifespan: Growing interests in species longevity and life expectancy prompted the coinage of this word. India didn’t fare too well at the time — our average expectancy was among the world’s lowest, at under 30 years. Australians at the time lived to 61. The Indian lifespan stands at 68.3 today; the people of Canada, Australia, Japan and western Europe live to an average of 85.

Altimeter: The Wright Brothers’ first successful flight was in 1903, and the next few decades took aeronautics to, well, new heights. A name for an instrument for measuring altitudes entered the OED in 1918.

Queueing: Queue entered the dictionary in 1893. The verb form came out of the war, as millions lined up for rations. A book published in that year notes that queuing afforded women “an occasion and an opportunity for gossip”.

Rurban: The industrial revolution had rapidly urbanised some areas, creating zones for business and manufacturing. But by 1918, towns and villages were no longer watertight areas. Motor vehicles had made movement easy in farming towns; cities were expanding beyond their borders, necessitating the coinage to better manage the in-between zones.

Turbulence: Air travel meant we felt the atmospheric eddies in the sky and needed a name for them – the 15th-century word for ‘trouble’ seemed apt.

Troubleshoot: HR didn’t come up with this bit of corporate-speak. A ‘troubleshooter’ originally meant someone who worked on telegraph or telephone lines. The verb form, born in 1918, eventually became shorthand for problem-solving.

Windbreaker: A jacket that kept the biting breeze away. What else would you call it?

Cheerio: The goodbye greeting was originally ‘cheero’ a variation of ‘cheer’ or ‘cheers’. Enough people preferred ‘cheerio’ for it to enter the OED in 1918.

Blah: In 1918 it stood for “idle, meaningless talk” as in ‘blah blah blah’. The following year it also indicated that something was dull – as in, ‘so blah’.

Snooty: The adjective derived from ‘snoot’ meaning “proud or arrogant”, which itself came from ‘snout’.

Roomie: American English-speakers had been familiar with the concept of a roommate since the late 1700s. The short form dates from 1918.

Recon: Military slang for reconnaissance.

Soppy: It usually meant wet, but the first reference of it being used to mean “sentimental” dates from 1918.

Zing: Bullets were already ‘zinging’ past in 1911, years before war broke out. By 1918, term for high-pitched sound evolved as slang for ‘energy’ or ‘zest’.