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15 Words and Phrases from 1915

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Terms that first appeared in print in 1915 reveal something about life a hundred years ago. Although the war in Europe left its mark on the lexicon, there are also signs of the changing times in arts and culture.

1. AEROBATICS

Trapeze artists perform acrobatics. Acrobat entered English in the early 19th century from French acrobate, from Greek akrobatēs, from akrobatos, "walking on tiptoe," from akron, "tip," and bainein, "to walk." So what do you call the aerial stunts performed with the aid of an “aeroplane” (the accepted spelling in the U.S. until 1916)? A one-letter switcheroo turns acrobatics into aerobatics.

2. BABE 

This word was used as a term of endearment at least as early as 1911, and it referred to an infant as far back as the Middle Ages, but the first documented use of babe to mean an attractive young woman, as in “She’s some babe,” dates from 1915. 

3. BLOOD CHOLESTEROL

According to a 1915 edition of The Journal of Biological Chemistry, the principle that you are what you eat when it comes to cholesterol was well established. 

4. BLUES 

“The blues,” in the sense of melancholy or sadness, goes way back. In 1741, actor and playwright David Garrick wrote, “I am far from being quite well, tho not troubled wth ye Blews as I have been.” As the OED puts it, “As the blues [in that sense] became a common trope in African American folk song several melancholic songs began to include blues in their titles [the earliest “Dallas Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” both 1912], leading to the adoption of the word as the name of the genre.” The earliest citation for “the blues” as a genre comes from the Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 11, 1915. 

5. BOMBER 

Although the Great War raging in Europe included air raids, in 1915 the new word bomber referred to a person previously called a “bomb thrower.” The use of the word bomber for an aircraft was not recorded until 1917. 

6. CAMOUFLAGE 

Camouflage was used the in 19th century to refer to any kind of disguise or concealment. In 1915, it took on the specific military meaning of disguising vehicles, weapons, installations, or personnel. The French army hired artists to disguise observation posts and cover guns as part of a camouflage corps and other countries soon followed suit.

7. EPISODE

Episode originally referred to a section between two choric songs in Greek tragedy. Later, it meant an event or series of events as part of a larger sequence, as in a life story or history. But episode meaning an installment of a movie, TV, or radio series—as in “stay tuned for scenes from next week’s episode”—first appeared in Moving Picture World, November 13, 1915. 

8. FUTURISTIC 

In 1915, some folks were ready to cast off the past and ponder what ultra-modern wonders the bright new 20th century might bring. Willard Huntington Wright, in Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning (1915), was apparently the first to use the word futuristic when he described the 1912 Cubist painting Man on a Balcony by Albert Gleizes. 

9. GIVE SOMEONE THE EYE

When you gave someone the eye in 1901, it was generally the stink eye. It meant “to look at (a person) in a threatening, antagonistic, or disapproving way; to direct a warning glance at.” But by 1915, it could also mean to ogle or to give a come-hither glance. As reported in the magazine section of the Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1915, “A fat whisky salesman breezed in from the bar ... and gave her the eye. You couldn't really blame him.”

10. JAZZ

In 1912, the noun jazz meant energy, excitement, pep or restlessness, animation, excitability. The OED’s first reference to jazz as a musical genre is also the first citation the editors found for the genre blues: Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 11, 1915, “The ‘blues’ had done it. The ‘jazz’ had put pep into the legs that had scrambled too long for the 5:15.”

The origin of the word jazz is controversial; many sources say it’s unknown, but the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says it originally meant “vim, vigor, copulation [or] semen” and is a shortening of an earlier word jazm, akin to jism. 

11. KODACHROME 

“What? Color slide film for the amateur photographer in 1915! That can’t be,” you say. You’re right. This has little to do with the carousel in the back of your parents’ closet holding images of some long ago trip to Yellowstone; it’s not the Kodachrome Paul Simon crooned about. The Kodachrome that Kodak marketed to portrait photographers in 1915 used only two colors (red and green) and glass plates rather than film. 

12. LIFESTYLE 

Oh, the hectic pace of those modern times 100 years ago! In the headlong rush, one could get only the merest impression of what was going on around one. The first recorded use of the term lifestyle appears in this quotation from a 1915 edition of Mind: “This spirit of expediency … excludes any possibility of peace or rest in unity with the universe. The author applies to it, as the ‘life-style’ of our age, the term Impressionism.” 

13. SCHLOCK

The word schlock, meaning cheap, shoddy, or defective goods, appeared in the New York Tribune in 1915: “Damaged articles ... are sold ... to the ... ‘schlock’ store proprietors.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, schlock is from the Yiddish shlak, which came from the Middle High German word for a hit or blow, and thus came to refer to damaged merchandise, and then to merchandise of poor quality. 

14. SKINNY 

Skinny jeans are not so new; skinny meant tight-fitting a hundred years ago. The February 4, 1915 edition of Iowa's WaterlooTimes-Tribune declared, “Skinny clothes in vogue this year. The correctly dressed man for 1915 will display a ‘quick fit.’ Fashion has decreed that the tight fitting clothes of the past year shall become more so.”

15. TO TAKE NO PRISONERS 

This expression was used literally since at least the late 16th century to mean to kill all enemy combatants. In the figurative sense—"to be ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising, to be merciless"—it first appears in print in the New York Times, August 19, 1915: “The Cubs took no prisoners … the Dodgers escaping with nothing but their uniforms and bat bag.”

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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