Lexicon Valley

The Oxford English Dictionary Wants YOU!

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Who coined the term shell shock? When, and where, were artillery shells called streetcars? And who first described sausage and mash as Zepps in a cloud? These are just some of the questions that the Oxford English Dictionary is asking as it updates its coverage of First World War vocabulary.

An important part of the history of a word is when it was first used. OED researchers and editors consult a large number of books, newspapers, and online databases, but it would be impossible to read or search everything that has ever been written in English, which is why we need your help. Since the OED Appeals website was launched in 2012, volunteers have found antedatings (what we call earlier examples) for dozens of words, including blue-arsed fly (1936; previously attested only from 1970), gangster (1884; previously attested from 1886), and mochaccino (1963; previously attested from 1971).

As part of the First World War centenary commemorations, the OED has launched a special set of appeals relating to some of the WWI words and phrases it is currently revising. In each case, we believe that there is earlier evidence out there—perhaps in a private letter, a personal diary, a local newspaper, or a government record.

For some words, we have clues to earlier usage but have not yet found the evidence. For example, our first quotation for shell shock is the title of a 1915 article in a medical journal, ‘A contribution to the study of shell shock,’ by Charles Samuel Myers. Myers, a psychologist who was commissioned in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war, wrote in a later book that shell shock was a “singularly ill-chosen term.” But did he choose it? Some accounts suggest that the term was already in use at the front, and Myers merely popularized it: certainly, it sounds like an expression that might have been devised by laymen rather than by a medical practitioner. Earlier evidence—perhaps from a letter or diary—would help shed light on its origins. A similar appeal is for trench foot and trench mouth. For both of these terms, our first quotations are from medical journals, and we hope that earlier evidence might be uncovered, perhaps showing usage by the soldiers themselves.

Sometimes we need more evidence to get a better picture of when and where a word was used. Some of the most inventive slang terms coined during the war were words for “shell,” including whizz-bang, pipsqueak, toffee apple, coal-box, and souvenir. To this list we can add streetcar—or so said the novelist Raymond Chandler. In 1950, Chandler—who had served in WWI with both Canadian and British forces—wrote in a letter that he was surprised that slang dictionaries omitted “some of the most commonly used words of soldier-slang. E.g. … ‘street cars’ or ‘tram cars’ for heavy long range shells.” But so far, only one other piece of evidence for this sense of streetcar has been found, from a book published in 1920, two years after the end of the war.

In other cases, our first quotation is from a dictionary or glossary, and we feel sure that there are earlier examples of “real” usage. For instance, Zepps (or Zeppelins) in a cloud/fog/smokescreen—sausage and mash—is listed in a 1925 dictionary of war slang, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases. It seems very likely that the compilers of this dictionary were recording a phrase they knew to have been used at the front; they recorded many other slang terms that we know for sure do go back to the First World War or earlier, such as ammo and iron rations. Is there earlier written evidence of Zepps in a cloud as well?

The Appeals website has already received promising submissions of evidence for several of the WWI Appeals, but it is likely that even earlier examples may be available. If you have access to letters, diaries, newspapers, or other materials from the First World War—or if you simply like a good word hunt—have a look at the OED WWI Appeals and see what you can find. We will seek to verify any promising evidence, and, if genuine, it will appear in the OED in due course!