15 Words and Phrases from 1915

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Terms that first appeared in print in 1915 reveal something about life a hundred years ago. Although the war in Europe left its mark on the lexicon, there are also signs of the changing times in arts and culture.


Trapeze artists perform acrobatics. Acrobat entered English in the early 19th century from French acrobate, from Greek akrobatēs, from akrobatos, "walking on tiptoe," from akron, "tip," and bainein, "to walk." So what do you call the aerial stunts performed with the aid of an “aeroplane” (the accepted spelling in the U.S. until 1916)? A one-letter switcheroo turns acrobatics into aerobatics.

2. BABE 

This word was used as a term of endearment at least as early as 1911, and it referred to an infant as far back as the Middle Ages, but the first documented use of babe to mean an attractive young woman, as in “She’s some babe,” dates from 1915. 


According to a 1915 edition of The Journal of Biological Chemistry, the principle that you are what you eat when it comes to cholesterol was well established. 


“The blues,” in the sense of melancholy or sadness, goes way back. In 1741, actor and playwright David Garrick wrote, “I am far from being quite well, tho not troubled wth ye Blews as I have been.” As the OED puts it, “As the blues [in that sense] became a common trope in African American folk song several melancholic songs began to include blues in their titles [the earliest “Dallas Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” both 1912], leading to the adoption of the word as the name of the genre.” The earliest citation for “the blues” as a genre comes from the Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 11, 1915. 


Although the Great War raging in Europe included air raids, in 1915 the new word bomber referred to a person previously called a “bomb thrower.” The use of the word bomber for an aircraft was not recorded until 1917. 


Camouflage was used the in 19th century to refer to any kind of disguise or concealment. In 1915, it took on the specific military meaning of disguising vehicles, weapons, installations, or personnel. The French army hired artists to disguise observation posts and cover guns as part of a camouflage corps and other countries soon followed suit.


Episode originally referred to a section between two choric songs in Greek tragedy. Later, it meant an event or series of events as part of a larger sequence, as in a life story or history. But episode meaning an installment of a movie, TV, or radio series—as in “stay tuned for scenes from next week’s episode”—first appeared in Moving Picture World, November 13, 1915. 


In 1915, some folks were ready to cast off the past and ponder what ultra-modern wonders the bright new 20th century might bring. Willard Huntington Wright, in Modern Painting, Its Tendency and Meaning (1915), was apparently the first to use the word futuristic when he described the 1912 Cubist painting Man on a Balcony by Albert Gleizes. 


When you gave someone the eye in 1901, it was generally the stink eye. It meant “to look at (a person) in a threatening, antagonistic, or disapproving way; to direct a warning glance at.” But by 1915, it could also mean to ogle or to give a come-hither glance. As reported in the magazine section of the Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1915, “A fat whisky salesman breezed in from the bar ... and gave her the eye. You couldn't really blame him.”

10. JAZZ

In 1912, the noun jazz meant energy, excitement, pep or restlessness, animation, excitability. The OED’s first reference to jazz as a musical genre is also the first citation the editors found for the genre blues: Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 11, 1915, “The ‘blues’ had done it. The ‘jazz’ had put pep into the legs that had scrambled too long for the 5:15.”

The origin of the word jazz is controversial; many sources say it’s unknown, but the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says it originally meant “vim, vigor, copulation [or] semen” and is a shortening of an earlier word jazm, akin to jism. 


“What? Color slide film for the amateur photographer in 1915! That can’t be,” you say. You’re right. This has little to do with the carousel in the back of your parents’ closet holding images of some long ago trip to Yellowstone; it’s not the Kodachrome Paul Simon crooned about. The Kodachrome that Kodak marketed to portrait photographers in 1915 used only two colors (red and green) and glass plates rather than film.


Oh, the hectic pace of those modern times 100 years ago! In the headlong rush, one could get only the merest impression of what was going on around one. The first recorded use of the term lifestyle appears in this quotation from a 1915 edition of Mind: “This spirit of expediency … excludes any possibility of peace or rest in unity with the universe. The author applies to it, as the ‘life-style’ of our age, the term Impressionism.” 


The word schlock, meaning cheap, shoddy, or defective goods, appeared in the New York Tribune in 1915: “Damaged articles ... are sold ... to the ... ‘schlock’ store proprietors.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, schlock is from the Yiddish shlak, which came from the Middle High German word for a hit or blow, and thus came to refer to damaged merchandise, and then to merchandise of poor quality. 


Skinny jeans are not so new; skinny meant tight-fitting a hundred years ago. The February 4, 1915 edition of Iowa's WaterlooTimes-Tribune declared, “Skinny clothes in vogue this year. The correctly dressed man for 1915 will display a ‘quick fit.’ Fashion has decreed that the tight fitting clothes of the past year shall become more so.”


This expression was used literally since at least the late 16th century to mean to kill all enemy combatants. In the figurative sense—"to be ruthlessly aggressive or uncompromising, to be merciless"—it first appears in print in the New York Times, August 19, 1915: “The Cubs took no prisoners … the Dodgers escaping with nothing but their uniforms and bat bag.”