Words from the 1940s

Words from the 1940s

It was a decade of war and peace: the first half monopolized by worldwide conflict, the second tentatively reaching out towards ways of avoiding a repetition of the first. Together in their different ways they left their mark on the vocabulary of English.

All wars speed up technological and organizational innovation, which in turn spawns new terminology. World War II gave us bazooka (1943) and Sten gun (1942), napalm bomb (1945) and saturation bombing (1942), jeep (1941), duck (an amphibious vehicle; 1943) and landing craft (1940), the Allied term, E-boat (1940) – in German, this craft was called the ‘S-boot’ or ‘Schnellboot’ – and kamikaze (1944) attack.

The unprecedented levels of organization and bureaucratization stemming from the wartime mobilization of most of the adult population, the governmental control of most aspects of economic (and other) activity, and multi-level cooperation between the Allied powers led to a mushroom growth of official bodies, committees, military groups, plans and projects. Most of them seemed to have lengthy, multi-word titles which the urgency of war demanded should be abbreviated. Hence the rash of acronyms (1940) and other initialisms produced in the 1940s (such as BAOR (British Army of the Rhine; 1945), PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean; 1945), SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force; 1944), which set a seemingly irresistible pattern followed by the rest of the century.

At the other end of the lexical spectrum, the stress and comradeship of war produced a wealth of slang, much of it of the ‘whistling in the face of adversity’ type. To take one small part of the whole as an example, the Royal Air Force (whose aircrew suffered the highest death rates of all British service personnel) was a rich source: angels (height above ground; 1943) and bandits (hostile aircraft; 1942), stooging (flying aimlessly; 1941), get weaving (start briskly; 1942) and going for a burton (being killed; 1941), and shaky dos (close shaves; 1942), prangs (crashes; 1942) and tail-end Charlies (rear gunners; 1941), all became familiar to a public following the pilots’ exploits.

But what above all marked this war out from all that preceded it was the extent to which it engulfed civilian populations. In Britain, this took the form, in 1940, of the blitz (1940): bombed out (1940) families surveyed the smoking ruins of their homes; the bomb-sites (1945) began to appear that would disfigure British cities for decades to come. Towards the end of the war the bomber aircraft gave place to the V-1s (1944) (or buzz bombs (1944), or doodlebugs (1944), or flying bombs (1944)) and the V-2s (1944). To meet the threat of invasion, Britons joined the Home Guard (1940); to produce precious fuel, some became Bevin boys (conscripted coal-miners, named after Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour; 1944); clippies (female bus-conductors; 1941) ‘manned’ the buses. It was a time of cannibalizing (reusing old components; 1942) and make do and mend (1944). For eating out there were British Restaurants (government-subsidized, and serving basic fare; 1941), while at home there were (if you had the points (1939) that entitled you to rationed food) such delicacies as luncheon meat (1945), national milk, butter, etc. (conforming to official specifications; 1940), Woolton pie (a vegetable pie, named after Lord Woolton, then Minister of Food; 1941) and, later, snoek (a type of fish, briefly ubiquitous; a word first recorded in English in 1797, but never before or since in such common use). The Americans (providers of lend-lease (1941)) arrived, bringing their Kilroy (mythical inscriber of the graffito ‘Kilroy was here’; 1945) to join the British Mr Chad, who decorated walls everywhere with his wot no? (1945) slogan registering a complaint against shortages. When they left, they took many GI brides (1945) with them.

At the hinge of the decade the world was changed forever by the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan in August 1945. The possibility of such weapons had been envisaged for some time, and indeed the term atomic bomb is first recorded in 1914, but their all too real existence opened the way for alternative formulations: A bomb (1945) for short, fission bomb (1941) for the technically minded, superbomb (1940) or simply the bomb (1945) for the apocalyptically minded. The world was having to get used quickly to the possibility of being atomized (1945) by nuclear (1945) weapons. And as if this were not enough, there was now talk of a hydrogen bomb (1947), exploded by nuclear fusion (1947) and perhaps delivered by a guided missile (1945). Ground zero (1946) was not the place to be.

The world, released from the ravages of war, sought safety in numbers (collective security – the term dates from the 1930s). Institutions for international cooperation, such as the United Nations (1942) and the Security Council (1944), came into being, while in Europe, Benelux (a customs union of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg; 1947) gave a foretaste of future integration. The trouble was that ideologically, the Western powers and the Soviet Union were chasmically divided: the Cold War (1945), which was to last for four decades, was under way. The term iron curtain dates back at least to 1920, but it was Winston Churchill’s use of it, in a speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri on 5 March 1945, that lodged it in the world’s consciousness, symbolizing impenetrable hostility.

Editor’s note: the first citation represents only the earliest documented use yet found by OED researchers; a word may have been in circulation somewhat earlier.

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