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The Word

To the dictionary’s class of 1914: happy birthday!

‘Backpack,’ ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘oy vey’ turn 100

As 2014 draws to a close, lexicographers far and wide are carrying out their annual ritual of anointing the Words of the Year: Oxford Dictionaries’ “vape,” Merriam-Webster’s “culture.” But as the last days of the old year give way to the new, it’s also our final chance to recognize another group of words: the ones that celebrated their 100th birthday in 2014, based on their first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1914 was a propitious time for a word to be born. The outbreak of World War I on July 28 was bad for English-speakers, but good for English, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of American dictionaries at the OED. Conscription in the armed services, she said, meant “a lot of young people from very different social classes mixing, people from different English-speaking regions who are mixing, [with] people who speak other languages.” This jumble inspired a vibrant military slang, which, along with names for new technologies in trench and aerial combat, trickled home in dispatches from the front—and in words like “trench coat” and “doohickey.”


War wasn’t the only force generating vocabulary that year. A number of new foreign slang and food words bear witness to waves of late 19-century immigration to America. (More sourly, offensive new terms for these ethnic outsiders also joined the dictionary, including “wop” for an Italian and “shonicker” for a Jew.) Sources as diverse as the criminal underworld and the argot of P.G. Wodehouse and James Joyce helped give rise to colorful slang terms, including a range of creative insults. A newly potent mass media—advertising, print culture, the world of Hollywood—propelled the creation of words like “advertorial,” “blurb,” and “movieland” that feel oddly modern today.

Many of the words turning 100 this year have died the unmourned death of “billiken” or “zingo.” But others shape our daily speech. Where would we be without “posh,” “backpack,” or “oy vey”? Without “sociopath,” “legalese,” or “postmodernism”? Together these words offer a vivid portrait of our linguistic preoccupations one century ago—and some candidates ripe for revival in 2015.

Word War I?

Air raid (n). Bombs dropped from aircraft.

Archibald, Archie (n). German antiaircraft gun or a shell, often collective and personified, from a music hall song, “Archibald—certainly not!”, apparently sung by British airmen after escaping attack.


Balkanization (n). The division of a region into separate, often hostile, units.

Boche (n and adj). Derogatory French term of obscure origin for a German, especially a soldier, adopted as military slang.

Doohickey (n). Military slang for a small nondescript object, especially mechanical.

Gippo (n). Military slang for greasy stew, sauce, or gravy.

Kamerad (n). When German soldiers surrendered they would call out, “Kamerad,” i.e., “comrade.” Adopted as slang expressing anyone’s desire to surrender, sometimes in jest, like crying “uncle.”

Poilu (n). In French, a brave man, from a root meaning “hairy” or “virile”; in English, a French soldier.

Trench coat (n). Waterproof coat worn in the trenches.

Gosh, you’re 100?

Advertorial (n). Print advertisement published in the format of regular editorial content.

Atomic bomb (n). Locution invented by H.G. Wells.

Chunnel (n). A tunnel under the English Channel, not to be opened until 1994.

Blurb (n). Admiring jacket copy on a book. “Said to have been originated in 1907 by Gelett Burgess in a comic book jacket embellished by a drawing of a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Blinda Blurb,” according to the OED.

Filmize, filmization (v; n). To adapt (a novel, a play) for film; something that has been adapted.

Legalese (n). Lawyer’s jargon.

Multiple-choice (adj). Testing method developed by American psychologist Robert Yerkes to measure the intelligence of World War I recruits—with controversial, racially biased results.

Postmodernism, postmodernist (n, adj). Defined well before “modernism” had reached its peak.

You’re such a...

Feeb (n). A “feeble-minded person,” according to the OED.


Goop (n). “Stupid or fatuous person.”

Heel (n). Criminal slang for double-crosser; in general language, a “rotter.”

Hyper (n). According to a major dictionary of criminal slang published in 1914, a “flim-flammer.”

Jug (n). Fool, short for “juggins.”

Nitwit (n). An idiot.

Poodle-faking (n). “Behavior characteristic of a poodle-faker”: i.e., a sycophantic ladies’ man.

Swankpot (n). A show-off.

Svengali (n). From George du Maurier’s 1894 novel “Trilby,” someone with evil, hypnotic powers.

The interlopers

Gesundheit (int). German response to a sneeze: “Health!”

Gunsel (n). From Yiddish genzel or German gänslein for gosling or little goose: a slang term for a young tramp or homosexual partner that later came to describe an informant or gunman.

Maki zushi (n). Sushi rolls in seaweed.

Oy vey (int). All-purpose Yiddish exclamation of woe.

Shish kebab (n). Turkish grilled meat on a stick.

Tochus (n). From the Yiddish word for rear end.

The success stories

Backpack (n). Often used in the context of parachuting.

Big screen (n), with the. Cinema screen, or movies in general.

Crossword (n). Crosswords had been appearing in newspapers since the late 19th century, but under different names.

Grift (n). Like “graft,” a dishonest sort of work.

Peppy (adj). Spirited.

Posh (adj and n). Stylish and fancy; upper-crust; in earlier iterations, the word described a type of money or a dandy.

Stash (n). A hoard, from criminal slang.

Sociopath (n). Originally described a person who commits crimes due to abnormally low intelligence—later, shifted toward “psychopath.”

The obscurities

Billiken (n). A small elf-like doll, designed by a children’s book author, for which there was an unaccountable craze in the 1910s.


Cotch (n). From Jamaican slang, a small place to rest temporarily.

Gump (n). Slang for “chicken.” Also means “foolish person” going back to 1825.

Jake (adj). Good, OK.

Jazz (up) (v). To make a hash of.

Mat (n). A matinee performance.

Zingo (int). Like zing (which appeared in 1919): exclamation marking the appearance of something new.

Bring ’em back!

Beezer (n). Possibly from Scottish, meaning a fellow or chap.

Debag (v). To remove someone’s trousers as a prank.

Deratization (n). “The expulsion...of rats.”

Peloothered (v). Intoxicated; first citation from Joyce’s “Dubliners.”

Roscoe (n). Handgun.

Scat (n). Whisky.

Scrutty (adj). Dusty, scruffy.

Skit (adj). To be “right skit”: to be amusing, “a great laugh”; from “Dubliners,” apparently from the Irish for “laugh,” sciót.

Vespering (adj). Flying west, into the sunset; cited in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Year’s Awakening.”

Wibbly (adj). Wobbly.

Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.


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