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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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'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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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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