Skip to main content

How World War I gave us 'cooties'

By Jonathan Lighter
updated 3:48 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
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
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT