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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.


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. 


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. 


“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. 


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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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. 


“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. 


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.” 


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. 


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.”


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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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.


If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.


Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.


What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.


That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.


You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”


Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.


Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.


Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.


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