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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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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.


This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.


Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”


An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)


Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”


Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”


Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.


Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.


Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.


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