On September 9, 1917, a British naval officer named John Arbuthnot Fisher wrote a letter to Winston Churchill, who at that time was serving as Minister of Munitions in the British government. Lord Fisher had been First Sea Lord in the British Navy at the outset of the First World War, but had resigned in 1915 amidst growing frustration over Churchill’s handling of the Gallipoli Campaign. Frustrated once more with the ongoing events of the war, he wrote:
"My Dear Winston … Headlines in the newspapers have utterly upset me! Terrible!! 'The German Fleet to assist the Land operations in the Baltic.' … We are five times stronger at Sea than our enemies and here is a small Fleet that we could gobble up in a few minutes playing at great vital Sea part of landing an Army in the enemies’ rear and probably capturing the Russian capital by Sea! … Are we really incapable of a big Enterprise? I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!'
Fisher’s letter, which resurfaced in 2012, is now credited with providing the oldest written evidence of the abbreviation O.M.G.—but that isn’t the only surprisingly contemporary-sounding word that’s celebrating its centenary this year. Here are eleven more words and expressions that are turning 100 this year.
Environmentalism hasn’t always meant, well, environmentalism. Originally, it referred to the theory that the environment in which a person grows up can have a more significant impact on his or her personality and development than hereditary factors. In that sense, it was introduced in a eugenics paper in 1917; the ecological sense followed in the mid 1960s.
The earliest known reference to “automatic pilot” technology dates back to 1916, but it would be another year before the blended word autopilot first emerged in an American engineering journal.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest record of an autofocus camera also dates back to 1917, in an advertisement listed in the “Bargain List” section of Photographic Review magazine.
By 1917, the First World War had been continually escalating for three years, and victory—or indeed a conclusion of any kind—seemed just as far away. In response, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau advocated a policy he called jusqu’auboutisme: derived from a French expression essentially meaning “to the very end,” Clemenceau sought to continue the war until a fitting conclusion, either good or bad, was assured.
While Clemenceau was pushing for jusqu’auboutisme, an opposition minister named Joseph Caillaux advocated brokering a peace deal sooner rather than later, regardless of any losses incurred. His and his supporters’ willingness to throw in the towel early led to a headline in The Times denouncing “M. Caillaux and the ‘Defeatists’”—and the word has remained in use ever since. Other words that first emerged in the third year of the Great War included enlistee, parachuter, home front, and Bolshevism.
Doberman pinschers are named after the German breeder Ludwig Dobermann, who first bred the dogs in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the dogs began to become popular outside of Germany, however—and it wasn’t until 1917 that the dogs were first described in English, in an article in Policeman’s Monthly magazine that listed the Doberman as one of four breeds currently “being used for police purposes.”
Beatrix Potter might have figuratively described the gardens of Devonshire House, the London home of the Duke of Devonshire, as a “cat walk” way back in 1885, but in reference to an intentionally narrow walkway or platform, the earliest record of a catwalk is credited to a Glossary of Aeronautical Words and Phrases published in 1917 that defined it as the “narrow passage in the interior of an airship.” The earliest recorded reference to a fashion industry catwalk, meanwhile, dates from 1970.
8. HEATH ROBINSON
W. Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist and illustrator known for comic pictures of ludicrously complicated machines seemingly designed to carry out mundane tasks. His name has since come to be used allusively for any equally complicated or impractical mechanical device. The earliest record of any machine being labeled as a Heath Robinson contraption was “the movable mounting for the observer’s gun in the rear cockpit” described in An Airman’s Outings, or Cavalry In The Clouds—the 1917 memoirs of WW1 flying ace Alan “Contact” Bott.
9. HOME MOVIE
The February 1917 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine featured an advertisement for “the Movette,” an early portable movie camera. The advert provides us with the earliest known record of the expression home movies: Describing the Movette as “a real moving picture camera,” the advertisement proudly exclaimed, “Home Movies! That’s what you and everybody can have now.”
10. PEP PILL
Another advertisement—this time in an edition of The Decatur Review dated August 30—introduced the pep pill to the English language in 1917. “‘Pep’ Pills will make you more efficient,” the advertisement claimed, and “will make most thin people take on weight, will nourish starved nerves that are on edge, [and] will tone up your sluggish system.” Referencing something that enlivens or stimulates a person or thing, the “pep” of phrases like pep pill and pep talk is an abbreviation of pepper.
As a word that Merriam-Webster defines as “a location lacking identifying or individualizing qualities” or “a place or state denoting failure or relative obscurity,” nowheresville was introduced to the English language by a poet named Thomas Harkness Litster in 1917. The poem “Tell It Out Unto the Crossroads,” which appeared in Litster’s anthology Songs In Your Heart And Mine, opens with the line “I came from back of Nowheresville / From Concession number three.”
All images courtesy of iStock.