The assassin’s shot that sparked “the war to end all wars” was fired 100 years ago in June, and four years of fighting gave rise, as wars tend to do, to many words that have stuck with us: shell shock, cushy, tank, trench coat, ack-ack, and more.
The Oxford English Dictionary is marking the centenary of the First World War with an appeal for evidence of words from the era. For more than a year, the OED has issued appeals to the public to help them antedate words, issuing the appeals through its website and social media accounts. It has asked the public for early examples of disco, header, Earl Grey, and others. These sort of appeals go back to the roots of the OED, even antedating its existence.
The newest appeal is seeking examples of: camouflage, shell shock, jusqu’ auboutiste, demob, streetcar (as a type of shell), conchie, trench foot and trench mouth, Eyetie, Zeppelins in a cloud, Sam Browne and skive. Some of those have fallen in to disuse, especially on this side of the Atlantic, but others have stuck. All are traced to World War I by the OED, but that doesn't mean there aren’t earlier examples hiding out there.
Why would the public at large be more adept at such searches than the lexicographers of the OED? For one thing, there are a lot of words and only so many lexicographers to research them. More importantly, the OED explains:
Our first quotations are often from newspapers and magazines, and we know that there may well be earlier evidence in less-easily-accessible sources such as letters, diaries, and government records, many of which are now being made available in digital form for the first time.
So if you love words, enlist now. To badly mangle a World War I recruiting slogan: “What did you do during the OED’s Words from the First World War appeal?”
While the OED, examines early examples of war words, the University of Antwerp and the British Library are planning a conference on the language of the war and the war's influence on language. Languages and the First World War takes place June 18 to 20 in Antwerp, Belgium.