The ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ and the Great War

WWI zeppelinNext time you’re at the diner for breakfast, try ordering “Zeppelins in a cloud.” That’s slang for sausages and mashed potatoes, inspired by the airships used for spying and bombing during World War I, according to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The distinctive flying machines “must have captured the imaginations of soldiers,” the editors say. But Oxford’s word sleuths have been able to trace the use of the phrase only back to 1925, when it turned up in Edward Fraser and John Gibbons’s Soldier & Sailor Words.

So the OED’s lexicographers have put out an appeal to the public, asking for help in hunting down earlier uses of “Zeppelins in a cloud” and a handful of other terms “related to or coined during the war.” The Great War appeals list includes “shell shock,” “camouflage,” “trench foot,” and “demob,” along with words not often heard by modern ears: “conchie” (a conscientious objector), for instance, or “jusqu’auboutiste” (someone who fights to the bitter end, from the French “jusqu’au bout”). Another featured word, “skive” (“to avoid work”), remains in circulation in Britain but doesn’t seem to have invaded American English.

Oxford regularly issues appeals meant to harness the enthusiasm of language aficionados, who “love to try to outdo us in their research,” says Katherine Connor Martin, Oxford’s head of U.S. dictionaries. That’s just dandy with the professional dictionary makers. “Our ultimate goal is to record the best earliest example,” Ms. Martin says. More primary sources go online all the time, including word-rich resources such as diaries, letters, and newspaper archives, and “we can’t possibly search all databases” or all the print or manuscript materials where sought-for words might lurk.

Since the World War I appeal went out, members of the public have already produced nine pre-1925 examples of “Zeppelins in a cloud.” (See the comments thread here.) “A few people have suggested some quite earlier evidence” from 1915 and 1916, says Kate Wild, a senior assistant editor at the OED. Beyond finding earlier deployments of the chosen words, the editors also will revisit their definitions. “Camouflage,” for instance, needs to be updated to include both the military-inspired clothing pattern and animals hiding themselves, she says.

Her personal favorite on the list is probably “skive.” “It comes from French, ‘to escape and avoid,’” Ms. Wild says.

After the World War I appeal closes, on March 14, she and other Oxford editors will check each crowd-contributed citation to make sure it passes muster. If it does, it will be published online this summer as part of a bigger update of about 200 World War I-era entries in the dictionary, selected for updates now as a way to mark the centenary of the war. Ms. Wild is especially partial to “napoo,” another word that probably comes from the French: “il n’ya plus,” roughly “no more”—dead, in other words. British soldiers serving in France or with French troops might have picked up the term and brought it home, she says.

It’s no wonder that World War I left an impression on the language, Ms. Martin says. “It was such a catastrophic experience but also such an important experience,” she says. “All these young men thrown together,” hearing not just French and German and Italian but unfamiliar regional English dialects too.

The military “continues even today to be a very strong source of new words and novel uses of language,” Ms. Martin says. “There’s just something about that environment that allows linguistic creativity to thrive. Whenever you have a close set of people, you can develop these in-jokes.”

The World War I updates are one tiny part of a decades-long effort to update the OED—all of it. Ms. Martin estimates that she and her colleagues are about a third of the way through the work. “We’re looking at every single word and looking at every single sense,” Ms. Martin says. “It’s a massive project.” The current appeal represents the first time the editors have used a historical subject or event as a way to take aim at a specific set of words whose definitions need refreshing. They’ve given up on the idea that updates should be done alphabetically.

“We realized it would be much more effective and useful to our audience to prioritize,” she says. “To me that’s really what the digital dictionary is all about.” What gets bumped to the head of the update queue? Words that get a lot of lookups, that “are core parts of the English vocabulary,” or whose meanings have changed a lot over time.

Oxford publishes updates quarterly online. The most recent print version of the OED, the second edition, dates to 1989. “Since we began publishing online, we haven’t been publishing more words on paper,” Ms. Martin says. There’s no official word yet on whether there will ever be another print edition.

Image from the National Archives of the Netherlands’ Flickr collection: A German Zeppelin bombs Antwerp in August 1914, in what might be the first recorded air raid.

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