A CENTURY AGO, when my grandparents were teens, The Great War ravaged the world. As I read about how Europe sleepwalked into that conflict, I can point out some vocabulary words that arose during WWI.
I point out to our children that although millions of men gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe, influenza claimed 50 million more lives in the conflict’s immediate aftermath. Some of those deaths happened in military hospital wards scattered throughout Dublin.
World War I also gave us daylight saving time, triage, chemical weapons, plastic surgery, fascism and yet another war. Man learned more ingenious way to kill and also discovered miraculous ways to save lives.
While reading Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, I simultaneously read Sarah Sloat in the Wall Street Journal as she summaried words that emerged during the conflict to enter the common vernacular.
From Sarah Sloat's "First World War Centenary"
Even those who consider themselves untouched by World War I experience its legacy every time they talk about “acing” an interview, feeling “shell-shocked,” or seeing a movie that was a “dud.” Dozens of words handed down from the war have become entrenched in the English language.
“There weren’t a great number of new words invented, but there was a ‘melting pot’ in the war that helped words spread,” says Julian Walker, a linguist and the co-author, with military historian Peter Doyle, of “Trench Talk: Words of the First World War.” Words from other languages entered English, and regional words jumped borders.
On the front, British soldiers mixed with foreign troops, inevitably exchanging words and slang. “Cushy,” a word used today to mean comfortable, privileged or plush, entered English in World War I via Indian troops, for whom it meant “pleasant.” From American allies, the British learned to put miscreants in the “cooler,” and from Canadians they learned to “swipe” food, Mr. Walker says.
French words trickled in too. “Camouflage” was practically unused in English before the war, but soon bested whatever English had to offer.”Souvenir” ousted “keepsake,” and “morale” usurped “moral.”
British troops also mixed with each other, and some words earned their place in the modern tongue when war propelled them over regional barriers. This was especially true after 1916, when conscription was introduced in the U.K., Mr. Walker notes.
One word that caught on was “binge,” used in the English Midlands county of Lincolnshire before the war to describe a drinking bout. Today it’s used globally to mean overindulgence—in whiskey, doughnuts or shopping. Since the advent of video-on-demand, there’s even binge-watching.
The London slang “bloke” became popular in the war and climbed the social ladder. “By the end of the war you’ve got people using words they would have been shocked about before, who [in turn] spread them to their families and communities,” Mr. Walker says.
English owes the modern use of “ace” to fighter pilots. The deck’s most powerful card, the ace, became jargon for World War I pilots who shot down at least five planes. It’s now used as a verb—acing an exam—and an adjective, as in “ace reporter.”
In fashion, the raincoat worn by British officers emerged from the war as the “trench coat.” In medicine, the war spawned “trench foot” and “trench mouth,” as well as “shell shock,” a phrase popularized by a military psychologist.
Some words in limited use gained currency in the war. Though it existed before World War I, “dud” shot to prominence after soldiers applied it to shells that failed to explode. Soon it was being used more extensively, and now signifies disappointment in general, as in “that party was a dud.”
Similarly, one of the phrases most associated with World War I—no man’s land—was around well before 1914. According to Mr. Walker, it was used in medieval times for the area outside London’s city walls, but in the war came to mean unconquered territory.