Crowdsourcing WWI Word Origins.

I got an e-mail from Christian Purdy, Director of Publicity at Oxford University Press USA, with an appeal for the public to help find cites for an interesting class of words:

To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, the OED is revising a set of vocabulary related to, or coined during, the war. Part of the revision process involves searching for earlier or additional evidence, and for this we need the help of the US public.

Our first quotations are often from newspapers and magazines, and we know that there may well be earlier evidence in less-easily-accessible sources such as personal letters, soldiers’ diaries, and government records, many of which are now being made available in digital form for the first time. We are hopeful the public can help find earlier evidence for the use of some wartime words? We are gathering all contributions on the OED appeals website.

The top item at the website now is skive, meaning ‘to avoid work’; their first quotation is from a 1919 magazine article, and they’d like to antedate it. Give ’em a hand!


  1. ‘cootie’ is a WWI fave of mine, cognate with the first half of ‘ukulele’.

  2. Why is that question mark at the end of the penultimate sentence? No-one is permitted to tell me that it is a typo. It’s impossible to type a question mark in place of a period carelessly.

    I keep seeing question marks at the end of statements. It seems that those who do it have a question in mind, but make a statement instead. I don’t think I’m losing it, but it’s driving me crazy!

    And now one from the Director of Publicity at Oxford University Press USA! The guy sure dosen’t (sp? Maybe I am losing it) have an education in writing English. Probably a B.A. in Communications and an M.A. in Journalism.

    Yes, this is a peeve. I’m seeing change in action.

  3. @iakon: I use the question-ish-intonation question mark myself, but I can’t imagine that this is an example of it, because there’s just no way that that sentence is meant to be read with question-ish intonation. So, I’m betting that an earlier draft had an actual question there (e.g. “Can you, the public, help find earlier evidence for the use of some wartime words?”), and when it was changed to a statement during editing, the question mark was left in by mistake. (I make this sort of editing mistake all the time — changing one thing, without changing something else that needs to change accordingly — and I know I’m not alone.)

  4. I’m pretty sure Ran is right. (I too noticed the anomalous question mark; if I had been editing Purdy, I would have simply changed it to a period, unless I had reason to think he was an unusually touchy author — I have worked with some — in which case I would have queried it.)

  5. des von bladet says

    I use question-mark-terminated statements all the time? (Obviously I quite like them.)

  6. I don’t know whether this rises to the level of the OED, but my father, who was in the US Navy for a while during WWI (he never left the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and I’m under the impression that his contribution to the war involved selling war bonds) told me that a dish known as “German fried potatoes” before the war was widely listed on menus during the war as “liberty fried potatoes.” This usage seems to have died out after the war, in favor of the alternative designation “home fried potatoes,” which has persisted to the present day.

    I seem to recall that the term “liberty fried potatoes” was revived briefly in the Senate cafeteria during the initial phases of the invasion of Iraq, this time to refer to French fried potatoes, in order to avoid crediting the French, whose reluctance to participate in this venture incurred the scorn of true American patriots, with an indispensable staple of red-blooded American cuisine. This was necessary, I suppose, because after WWI the term “home fried potatoes” was no longer available for French fries.

  7. I use question-mark-terminated statements all the time?

    Yes, well, you also use diaryland. There’s no accounting for taste.

  8. des von bladet says

    There’s no accounting for taste.

    Says the Mets fan.

    Anyway, I would ‘ve gone with Livejournal but in those days they were invitation-only, and my Russian was non-existent. (And at least one of these things is sadly still true.)

  9. I seem to recall

    American lawmakers were offered Freedom Fries after Iraq. My very French brother-in-law thought it hilarious.

    Never heard of Liberty Potatoes, but certainly Liberty Cabbage was the euphemism du jour for beastly sauerkraut in 1918 America.

    As to skive, that also means to shave thin bits of metal or mineral, notably heat sinks for computers, and back in the day, diamonds.

  10. @Bill W: In keeping with the times, perhaps we should now refer to “homeland fried potatoes.”

    There was also liberty cabbage, the WW1 designation for sauerkraut, but that reverted to its original name.

  11. Says the Mets fan.


  12. Really interesting, thanks​!​

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  13. I wonder how old the expression “lead Zeppelin” is? As in “that’ll go down like a lead Zeppelin” or in other words be unpopular.

    Hope you don’t disapprove of that question mark. Sometimes I put them in because I am asking a question and sometimes I leave them out because I’m not asking a direct question.

  14. iakon,
    “I keep seeing question marks at the end of statements”

    Yeah, think of it as a topic marker. As in:

    “That little friend of your you think I don’t know about? I just had her name plastered all over the internet for the sleazy little homewrecker she is.”

    It’s a work-around. English is one of those sad languages that doesn’t have final particles for that kind of function.

  15. They ned help.

    I didn’t see “howitzer” or “Big Bertha”.

    I would expect a lot of new coinages to come out of such a watershed war. The American Civil War may have been the first modern war, but WWI was the frst modern war that Europeans took part in, and it shattered a whole structure of cultural conventions and memes. It put a stake through the heart of the chivalric conception of warfare that had been the paradigm in Europe for centuries and centuries. A cultural jolt like that should be a fountain of new experiences and vocabulary to describe them.

  16. J. W. Brewer says

    AJP: the earliest usage of “lead Zeppelin” I can find in google books is from 1959 (a book titled “Antarctic Scout” which was an account by a teenage Eagle Scout who’d won a contest to spend a year at one of the U.S. scientific outposts down there). It’s an obvious jocular extension of “lead balloon,” which was already the “proverbial lead balloon” as early as 1925. The further extended use of the musical ensemble denoted by “Led Zeppelin” occurred in 1968. I suspect fairly few Americans have heard “lead Zeppelin” in your sense other than in the context of the anecdotal backstory about how the band supposedly got its name.

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    Jim: it is possible to come up with striking descriptions of new/dramatic/catastrophic phenomena using existing lexical resources. I don’t see any particularly innovative vocabulary in Pound’s famous summary of 1914-18:

    There died a myriad,
    And of the best, among them,
    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization,

    Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
    Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

    For two gross of broken statues,
    For a few thousand battered books.

  18. That little friend of your you think I don’t know about?

    I take that to be short for “You know that little” etc., so an aphetic question like “Been to Scarsdale lately?”

  19. Thanks, JW. I reckon it might be from WW1-ish. I remember my grandmother talking about being bombed by zeppelins during the war.

  20. Glad you noted this appeal! Maybe we should import “skive” into American English, along with “zeppelins in a cloud.” The OED editors are updating about 200 WWI-era words and phrases all told, they told me; the appeals list features a handful they thought would be especially useful to crowd-source. I wrote about the project here.

    And one of my OED sources, Kate Wild, has also blogged about it for Slate:


  21. des von bladet says

    Cepelinai (where the “c” is a /ts/ like german “z”) are still a(n overrated) local potato-and-meat-based delicacy in Lithuania.

  22. Must be somehow related to the Little-Italian Zeppole; though probably not by flavour.

  23. Here’s one.

  24. J. W. Brewer says

    I expect “Zeppelin” was already current in English before the outbreak of WW1, since Count von Zeppelin had already manufactured twenty-odd airships by then and at least some meaningful subset of Anglophones would have been interested in writing/talking about cool new technology even if it had not yet been used to drop bombs on them. Since a Zeppelin is arguably a sort of balloon, modifying the “lead balloon” fixed-phrase to swap in “Zeppelin” presumably could have been done at any point when both the fixed phrase and Zeppelins were current in English, but it is also not implausible that no one bothered to connect those particular dots in that particular fashion for many decades after it became possible in principle to do so.

  25. True enough.

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