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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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Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
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The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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