Skip to main content

How World War I gave us 'cooties'

By Jonathan Lighter
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1948 GMT (0348 HKT)
French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events. French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events.
HIDE CAPTION
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jonathan Lighter: World War I brought slew of new words into use to express the turbulent time
  • "Cooties," "tanks," "doughboy", "fed up," "dud," "trench warfare" and many more, he says
  • Lighter says H.G. Wells invented most ominous phrase of all: "the atomic bomb"

Editor's note: This is the second in a series on the legacies of World War I. It will appear on CNN.com/Opinion in the weeks leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the war's outbreak in August. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is guest editor for the series. Jonathan Lighter is research professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has written on war fiction and movies for the journal War, Literature & the Arts. His monograph on the language of World War I appeared in the journal American Speech, and he is editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

(CNN) -- The Brits called it the "Great War." To the Yanks, it was the "World War." No one wanted to think there could be a second. Though World War I, which began 100 years ago next month, devastated lives and landscapes, its effect on language was almost paradoxically positive. It spawned hundreds of new words and popularized scores of old ones. Many of them survive today -- there are "cooties," "camouflage," "scrounge" and "dud," for example -- but many have lost their once-widely recognized associations with the war that was hoped would "end war."

Jonathan Lighter
Jonathan Lighter

Total war, as the world twice found out in the past century, is a turbulent time. It is for language, too. As new concerns, new methods, new technologies and new experiences multiply, vocabulary by necessity tries to keep up.

Obscure old words can get a new lease on life. World War I gave the English language new terms as varied as "blimp" and "Boches" and "devil dog" and even "D-Day." It popularized military slang like "doughboy" and "fed up." It dragooned older terms for wider application, such as "Yank" and "no-man's land."

Some words prominent in 1914-18 have pretty much fallen from use. Others remain as well-known as the war's idealistic slogans, like H. G. Wells' call for "a war to end wars" and Woodrow Wilson's to make the world "safe for democracy."

WAR'S LASTING LEGACY

The first World War began August 4, 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28 of that year. In the next two months, CNN.com/Opinion will feature articles on the weapons of war, its language, the role of women, battlefield injuries and the rise of aerial surveillance.

As a multilingual war, it promptly enriched the English language with terms of international origin. Air reconnaissance made military and naval "camouflage," another French word, a necessity. The same might be said of the French 75 cocktail, named for the war's most effective artillery piece. And historians writing in English still use the Gallic "poilu" for a French combat soldier and "Boches" for the Germans.

Older terms and nicknames sometimes gained new popularity that guaranteed they'd remain in English long after soldiers returned home. George M. Cohan's smash hit "Over There" (1917) was the catchiest American patriotic song ever, and when he wrote that "The Yanks are coming," he followed the British, not the American, use of the Civil War term to encompass all Americans, north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

"Doughboy" was a new one on most people, but it had meant an infantryman since the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, for no very clear reason; now, it's the usual synonym for the American soldier of the First World War. "Leatherneck," which also looked new but wasn't, denoted the U.S. Marine, whose 19th-century uniform had featured a high leather collar that sailors ridiculed.

Three unexpected things from WWI

Opinion: How a century-old war affects you

A Wisconsin newspaper claimed in 1918 that the Germans thought American Marines fought like Teufelhunden, or "devil dogs"; the supposedly German word sounds ersatz, but the English version is still heard in the Corps. (Sailors were "gobs"; fliers were "birdmen"; pals were "buddies": all pre-war, all truly mainstream for the first time in 1914-18.) "G.I.," which meant only "galvanized iron" and "government issue" in World War I, eventually became the World War II term for a U.S. soldier.

The everyday life of those soldiers spawned many words and expressions. When kids talk of "cooties," they don't realize what everyone knew by 1918: It was a new term for lice, which burrowed into the clothes of any and all who served on the front lines. "Chow," for food, owes its popularity mostly to the U.S. military of World War I. From the British came the expressions "to scrounge" (to search for and, if necessary, pilfer), "cushy" (enviably comfortable) and "fed up" (disgusted with it all), three salient soldier concepts in any war.

From the British came the expressions to 'scrounge' (to search for and, if necessary, pilfer), 'cushy' (enviably comfortable) and 'fed up' (disgusted with it all), three salient soldier concepts in any war.

Trench warfare became a sinister science, as front-line troops of every army hunkered down for hundreds of miles in conditions of appalling filth and danger. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, an opponent of the war, popularized the once-uncommon phrase "cannon fodder," which suggested that soldiers of all nations had been impersonally requisitioned to feed the guns or duped into enlisting by interchangeably imperialist rulers.

To name what lay between the entrenched armies, modern English enlisted a phrase from the Middle Ages: "no-man's land." The shell-pocked muck between the opposing trenches, bounded by rotting sandbags and rusted heaps of barbed wire, gave the 14th-century meaning of "unowned or uninhabited territory" a much grimmer connotation.

Before World War I, a "dud" was anything or anybody unsatisfactory, but by the time the conflict ended, "dud" referred chiefly to an unexploded shell or bomb, as it does to this day. The British began speaking of defensive "foxholes," dug not by foxes but by soldiers on the battlefield, a word that now may seem as old as shooting wars themselves.

The adjustment of a rifle's battle-sight was "zeroing in," a metaphor today's English can't do without. Then there's "D-Day": the very first was September 26, 1918, the starting date of the war-ending Allied offensive in the Argonne Forest.

Familiar now as an advertising platform, the helium-filled "blimp" was invented for naval observation in 1915. The British came up with the armored "tank" and named it arbitrarily to keep the weapon secret before its surprise appearance in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The threat of "chemical warfare" and "chemical weapons" had been discussed in the press, but their actual use by Germany in 1915, first in Poland and then in Belgium, raised the war's quotient of barbarism. The Allies quickly followed suit. "Air raids," which began on a small scale in 1914, were carried out by four-winged bombers and German Zeppelins.

The idea of bomb-laden squadrons of Zeppelins over London may seem like something from Victorian science fiction, and it was novelist H.G. Wells (author of "War of the Worlds") who invented the most ominous phrase of all.

In 1914, he imagined a device that might appear within a generation, whose destructive power would change everything forever. Wells warned that eventually "any little body of malcontents could use it." As though in prophecy of the long shadow the 1914-18 war would cast on the 20th century, Wells coined a now-familiar term for his imaginary superweapon that he believed could easily "wreck half a city."

He called it "the atomic bomb."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT