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11 Words Coined 100 Years Ago

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On September 9, 1917, a British naval officer named John Arbuthnot Fisher wrote a letter to Winston Churchill, who at that time was serving as Minister of Munitions in the British government. Lord Fisher had been First Sea Lord in the British Navy at the outset of the First World War, but had resigned in 1915 amidst growing frustration over Churchill’s handling of the Gallipoli Campaign. Frustrated once more with the ongoing events of the war, he wrote:

"My Dear Winston … Headlines in the newspapers have utterly upset me! Terrible!! 'The German Fleet to assist the Land operations in the Baltic.' … We are five times stronger at Sea than our enemies and here is a small Fleet that we could gobble up in a few minutes playing at great vital Sea part of landing an Army in the enemies’ rear and probably capturing the Russian capital by Sea! … Are we really incapable of a big Enterprise? I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!'

Fisher’s letter, which resurfaced in 2012, is now credited with providing the oldest written evidence of the abbreviation O.M.G.—but that isn’t the only surprisingly contemporary-sounding word that’s celebrating its centenary this year. Here are eleven more words and expressions that are turning 100 this year.  

1. ENVIRONMENTALISM

Environmentalism hasn’t always meant, well, environmentalism. Originally, it referred to the theory that the environment in which a person grows up can have a more significant impact on his or her personality and development than hereditary factors. In that sense, it was introduced in a eugenics paper in 1917; the ecological sense followed in the mid 1960s.

2. AUTOPILOT

The earliest known reference to “automatic pilot” technology dates back to 1916, but it would be another year before the blended word autopilot first emerged in an American engineering journal.

3. AUTOFOCUS

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest record of an autofocus camera also dates back to 1917, in an advertisement listed in the “Bargain List” section of Photographic Review magazine.

4. JUSQU’AUBOUTISME

By 1917, the First World War had been continually escalating for three years, and victory—or indeed a conclusion of any kind—seemed just as far away. In response, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau advocated a policy he called jusqu’auboutisme: derived from a French expression essentially meaning “to the very end,” Clemenceau sought to continue the war until a fitting conclusion, either good or bad, was assured.

5. DEFEATIST

While Clemenceau was pushing for jusqu’auboutisme, an opposition minister named Joseph Caillaux advocated brokering a peace deal sooner rather than later, regardless of any losses incurred. His and his supporters’ willingness to throw in the towel early led to a headline in The Times denouncing “M. Caillaux and the ‘Defeatists’”—and the word has remained in use ever since. Other words that first emerged in the third year of the Great War included enlistee, parachuter, home front, and Bolshevism.

6. DOBERMAN

Doberman pinschers are named after the German breeder Ludwig Dobermann, who first bred the dogs in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the dogs began to become popular outside of Germany, however—and it wasn’t until 1917 that the dogs were first described in English, in an article in Policeman’s Monthly magazine that listed the Doberman as one of four breeds currently “being used for police purposes.”

7. CATWALK

Beatrix Potter might have figuratively described the gardens of Devonshire House, the London home of the Duke of Devonshire, as a “cat walk” way back in 1885, but in reference to an intentionally narrow walkway or platform, the earliest record of a catwalk is credited to a Glossary of Aeronautical Words and Phrases published in 1917 that defined it as the “narrow passage in the interior of an airship.” The earliest recorded reference to a fashion industry catwalk, meanwhile, dates from 1970.

8. HEATH ROBINSON

W. Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist and illustrator known for comic pictures of ludicrously complicated machines seemingly designed to carry out mundane tasks. His name has since come to be used allusively for any equally complicated or impractical mechanical device. The earliest record of any machine being labeled as a Heath Robinson contraption was “the movable mounting for the observer’s gun in the rear cockpit” described in An Airman’s Outings, or Cavalry In The Cloudsthe 1917 memoirs of WW1 flying ace Alan “Contact” Bott.

9. HOME MOVIE

The February 1917 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine featured an advertisement for “the Movette,” an early portable movie camera. The advert provides us with the earliest known record of the expression home movies: Describing the Movette as “a real moving picture camera,” the advertisement proudly exclaimed, “Home Movies! That’s what you and everybody can have now.”

10. PEP PILL

Another advertisement—this time in an edition of The Decatur Review dated August 30—introduced the pep pill to the English language in 1917. “‘Pep’ Pills will make you more efficient,” the advertisement claimed, and “will make most thin people take on weight, will nourish starved nerves that are on edge, [and] will tone up your sluggish system.” Referencing something that enlivens or stimulates a person or thing, the “pep” of phrases like pep pill and pep talk is an abbreviation of pepper.

11. NOWHERESVILLE

As a word that Merriam-Webster defines as “a location lacking identifying or individualizing qualities” or “a place or state denoting failure or relative obscurity,” nowheresville was introduced to the English language by a poet named Thomas Harkness Litster in 1917. The poem “Tell It Out Unto the Crossroads,” which appeared in Litster’s anthology Songs In Your Heart And Mine, opens with the line “I came from back of Nowheresville / From Concession number three.”

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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