In 1950, the novelist Raymond Chandler wrote in a letter to Hamish Hamilton: ‘Doesn’t he [i.e. Eric Partridge, the author of many slang dictionaries] overlook some of the most commonly used words of soldier-slang? E.g…“street cars” or “tram cars” for heavy long range shells.’ Chandler served in the First World War with Canadian and British forces and would have been very familiar with military slang, but we have found only one other example of streetcar meaning ‘shell’, from a work published after the war:
The air was filled with the sounds of the shells as they lazily went on their way towards the back lines of both sides. ‘Street cars’..the boys called them.
1920 Charles R. Herr Company F Hist.: 319th Infantry, p. 22
Given that Chandler felt that this was one of the ‘most commonly used’ items of soldiers’ slang, is there more evidence for this sense of streetcar that we haven’t uncovered, perhaps in letters or diaries?
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To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War (1914–18), the OED is revising a set of vocabulary related to or coined during the war. Part of the revision process involves searching for earlier or additional evidence, and for this we need your help. 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.
Posted by OED_Editor on 29 January 2014 11.49