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Which words came to life 100 years ago? New words in 1912 from ‘ambivalence’ to ‘jazz’

On April 15, 1912, readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their papers to the headline “The World’s Greatest Steamship Wrecked.” Less than two weeks earlier, they had read something else of historical note, at least to etymologists: the April 2 edition contained the earliest citation yet found for the word jazz. At that time, this neologism had not yet taken on its association with music, but was instead used in the context of baseball (meaning “energy, excitement, ‘pep’”) . The loss of 1,500 lives is of course a matter of an entirely different scale than a lexicographic citation. Nonetheless, at a remove of 100 years, the media focus on this anniversary of the Titanic tragedy offers an opportunity to look at 1912 in another way, through the lens of language.

What is it that makes a centenary (or for North Americans centennial) so compelling? Of course the roundness of the number itself accounts for much of the interest, but a century is also a convenient stand-in for the span of a human life. One hundred years after any event, it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone is still alive who experienced it firsthand. When the film Titanic was released in 1997, it was just barely plausible that a young woman aboard the ship when it sank would still be alive to witness the excavation of the wreck; now, it is in the domain of impossibility (at 117 years old, she would be the oldest woman alive).

After a century, the past belongs to history rather than memory. That means that hardly any English speaker alive knew a world in which the words first attested in 1912 didn’t exist. Of course, not every English speaker knew those words in 1912, and many of them probably existed in specialized or oral use prior to the first examples found by the Oxford English Dictionary’s lexicographers. Some words caught on quickly, while others languished in obscurity before coming into general use. All, though, invite us to ponder the qualities of the era which brought them into existence.

A changing culture

Jazz, first attested in slang, didn’t take on its musical sense until 1915, but once it did, the word soon became widespread. The use of the word blues to mean a type of melody or song also dates to 1912, when it appeared in the title of the record “Memphis Blues”. In the field of popular music and dancing, ranchera and rumba also joined the scene. Cellophane is another member of the class of 1912, as are the trademark names Oreo (a cookie), Pimm’s (a gin-based drink), and Mills & Boon (a type of romance novel). Words like these paint a vibrant picture of the twentieth century’s burgeoning consumer and mass culture on the cusp of change, an image underscored by the fact that another word first seen that year is post-Victorian. The dawning of a new age is also hinted at by the new word Churchillian, with reference to Winston Churchill, who would come to be a defining figure on the world stage in decades to come.

Science and technology

The terms autism and schizophrenia, both coined in German by the Swiss psychologist Eugene Beuler, first appeared in English journals in 1912, as did another German borrowing, histamine. We also see words for new medical specialties, like immunologist and pulmonologist, and in physics, the term quantum theory. Changing print and manufacturing technologies give us the first evidence of something being airbrushed, and with the increasing prevalence of airplanes comes the nosedive.

Colloquial innovations

On both sides of the Atlantic, 1912 saw colorful new additions to the vocabulary of English make themselves heard. The contemptuous intensifier sodding was used in a letter by D. H. Lawrence (“The miserable sodding rotters…that make up England today”). No slouch in the novel profanity department, Lawrence also penned the first evidence for balls-aching (meaning annoying or tedious) in another personal communication that year. The phrase “all of a dither” begat the adjective adither, first seen in the 1912 novel Moss Troopers by the Scottish novelist Samuel Rutherford Crockett. In the United States, the word punch-drunk was applied to the state of stupefaction experienced by a boxer who had taken too many blows to the head, and boner was used to describe a terrible blunder (the priapic meaning of the word isn’t seen until mid-century).

Surprisingly recent

Although 100 years is a long time, there are some words of 1912 which feel as if they ought to be older. For those of us accustomed to seeing nutritional information on every packaged food, it is a bit of a shock to learn that the word vitamin is only a century old. And how did English speakers survive until 1912 without the word ambivalence?

Whither the words of 2012?

The words of 1912 provide a certain insight into the state of the English-speaking world at the time, but the sheer variety is also a reminder of the unsettled nature of the English vocabulary, which continues to generate and discard new words at a rapid clip. Not all of the words of 1912 lasted the century (consider the ill-fated aviette, for a glider). Scholars have recently argued that the death rate of new words is increasing but as we read through our newspapers this year, we must assume that at least some of the new words we encounter will survive the century. Perhaps physible (the digital information required to create a particular physical object using a 3D printer) or squoob (squished cleavage) will strike the language buffs of 2112, with the benefit of hindsight, as just as evocative of our own era as the words of 1912 are of theirs.

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