Oxford English Dictionary selects 100 words that define first World War

The term First World War itself was first recorded on September 10th, 1918

 A Canadian soldier, left, lights a German prisoner’s cigarette during the first World War at Paschendale on the Western Front, November 1917. Photograph: Reuters

A Canadian soldier, left, lights a German prisoner’s cigarette during the first World War at Paschendale on the Western Front, November 1917. Photograph: Reuters


As part of a project to revise every word in the Oxford English Dictionary, the latest quarterly OED update published today marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War. Editors have selected 100 words first recorded in, popularised during, or coined as a result of the first World War.

New evidence published today in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals:

The term First World War is first recorded in the closing months of the war, in a diary entry from September 10th, 1918. Intuitively we might expect it to have been coined after the start of the Second World War (when the distinction became necessary). The name was chosen very much with posterity in mind; the phrase acknowledged not only the unprecedented scale of the conflict (the First World War), but also predicted its enduring historical significance.

A number of terms which are now mainly associated with the second World War are shown to date back to the first, including demob (1918), foxhole (1915 in the military sense), and strategic bombing (1918).

The word cootie, meaning a body louse, originated in the trenches in 1917. New research shows that coot meaning “louse” and cooty meaning “infested with lice” were used earlier in the war, in 1915. All are ultimately related to the bird called a coot: the phrase as lousy as a coot (referring to the reputation of these birds for being lice-infested) dates back to the 19th century.

The word cushy was borrowed from Urdu by the British military in India; the first recorded use in English is by Rudyard Kipling in 1887, in the sense “easy-going”. The term became widespread in the first World War, first in military slang, then in general colloquial usage, in a variety of senses including “easy” and “comfortable”.

German was largely the source of loanwords referring to weapons and vehicles, such as minenwerfer (and the diminutive Minnie), and U-boat. By contrast, the influence of French was more idiosyncratic; many of the French words used by soldiers at the front were informal phrases that were mispronounced forms of common French expressions, such as Alleyman (from Allemand, “a German”), no bon (“no good”), toot sweet – or even the tooter the sweeter (from tout de suite, “straightaway”).

The wet and muddy conditions of the first winter of trench warfare were evoked in the term Flanders mud (November 1914), while trench boots and trench coats (both December 1914) were invented to cope with these conditions. By early 1915 the physical and psychological effects of trench warfare were being felt: both trench foot and shell shock are first recorded in January 1915.

The sense that those back home are contributing to the war effort was first created in the First World War. War effort itself is a coinage of World War One, as are rationing (1915), propaganda film (1916), and home front (1917).

Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Anzac Day, Cenotaph, the Unknown Soldier, and the short period of communal silence were all introduced to commemorate the fallen of the first World War. That these words form part of our ordinary language nearly a century on is a testament to the power of words to capture, communicate and record shared histories.

Speaking of the project’s findings, OED chief editor Michael Proffitt comments: “As a historical dictionary of the English language, the OED also serves as a record of social history. On the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War, we have revisited and revised the dictionary’s coverage of the language and history associated with the war. As might be expected of such a prolonged global conflict, the scale and breadth of words associated with the first World War is vast. We have selected words that characterise the conflict: its technological innovations, its international scope, its impact on military and civilian life, and its enduring historical legacy. Some are familiar, others forgotten, but together they compellingly evoke the linguistic crucible of war.”

Additionally, OED editors appealed to the public via the OED Appeals website, to search for new early evidence in documents they would have found difficult to access, such as personal diaries and letters, and as a result several dictionary entries have been updated, including shell shock (1915), jusqu’auboutiste (1916), and demobbed (1919). The 100 Words that Define the First World War can be found in an animated timeline on the Oxford Dictionaries website: oxford.ly/ww1words

The last entry is from 1926 - the lost generation, a reference to the ose who fought, suffered and died in the war. It comes from the title-page of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, quotng Gertrude Stein: “You are all a lost generation."

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