Huffpost Books
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Oxford English Dictionary Headshot

21 Fascinating Words That Originated During WWI

Posted: Updated:
Print

Trench foot, whizz-bangs, and a plate of monkey meat? No wonder soldiers in the First World War hoped for a cushy wound to get them sent home.

As part of the centenary celebrations, the Oxford English Dictionary is updating its coverage of WWI vocabulary, and examining the impact of life in the trenches on the English language.

Trench foot, shell shock, and cushy wounds: words for illness and injury

The health problems caused by the appalling conditions of the trenches gave rise to new terms such as trench mouth (severe stomatitis), and trench foot (severe swelling and pain in the feet). It was not only the physical health of the soldiers that suffered: the term shell shock was coined in the First World War, long before the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder was named or fully understood. By the end of the war, shell shock was also being used figuratively or hyperbolically in the way it is most commonly used today, to refer to extreme shock or dazed confusion.

"When you are in the trenches a cushy wound... seems the most desirable thing in the world," wrote one army physician in 1915. Cushy was borrowed from Urdu kusi (meaning pleasure, convenience) by the British military in India in the 19th century; but it was only in WWI, when the introduction of conscription meant that the distinction between military and non-military became less clear, that the word spread widely amongst civilians. It had the now-familiar sense "easy" or "comfortable", but for the troops it was also used specifically to describe a wound which was non-fatal but meant getting sent home or away from the front line. Such a wound might also be called a blighty one - another word borrowed from Urdu in the 19th century (from bilayati, meaning foreign), and used by the British troops to mean England, Britain, or home.

Monkey meat and Zepps in a cloud: words for food

One unpopular army ration was Maconochie, stewed meat and vegetables from a tin. Named after its manufacturers, Maconochie dates back to the Boer war and became a staple in WWI, to the extent that the troops jocularly called the Military Cross and the Military Medal the "Maconochie Cross" and the "Maconochie Medal", and Maconochie was also a slang term for the stomach. Soldiers came up with a variety of other colloquial names for their unappetizing meals of stewed meat or hash, including gippo, hashmagandy (used by Australians and New Zealanders), and monkey meat (used by U.S. troops).

The war gave rise to a number of other culinary terms, including Zepps in a cloud, a playful phrase for sausage and mash, referring to the Zeppelin airships which were first used for bombing and reconnaissance in WWI. Away from the front, anti-German sentiment led to the U.S. coinage of liberty cabbage, used as a patriotic alternative to sauerkraut in much the same way that freedom fries was sometimes used for French fries in more recent times.

Whizz-bangs and tanks: words for weapons

One area of vocabulary which expanded in the First World War was, unsurprisingly, words for weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment. Some were new slang terms for existing weapons: for example, the soldiers had a seemingly limitless capacity for coming up with new names for shells and bullets, including pipsqueak, crump, whizz-bang, toffee apple, Black Maria, coal-box, streetcar, and souvenir. In some cases, new weapons were invented which needed new names, such as anti-aircraft guns. Perhaps the most significant invention of WWI, though, was the tank. Developed in secret and given the code-name tank (because of the resemblance between the vehicle's hull and a large reservoir), tanks were first put into commission in September 1916 and immediately caught the interest of the public. The word tank entered into numerous new compounds and phrases: for example, by the end of the war, if you wanted to describe things or people as large or well-built, a natural simile would be that they were "built like a tank".

The OED is running a special set of appeals for WWI words, including trench foot/mouth, shell shock, Zepps/Zeppelins in a cloud, streetcar, and tank. Can you help find earlier evidence for these and other words? We will seek to verify any promising evidence, and if genuine it will appear in the OED in due course. Visit OED appeals for more.