A war of words: How World War I changed our language


As the centenary of the First World War approaches, the BBC and the Oxford English Dictionary are taking a look at words that were born in the midst of the war to end all wars.

Among the expressions we still use today …

Strafe: German for “punish.” The Germans used the phrase “Gott strafe England!” in propaganda. At the beginning of the war, the English began to use “strafe” in jokes to mean¬†punish, bombard or reprimand. But by the end of the 4-year-conflcit, the word assumed the definition it retains: an attack of machine-gun fire from a low-flying aircraft.

Pipsqueak and whizz-bang: the sounds mortar shells make.

Camouflage: Technological advances such as the airplane and long-range artillery required the need to conceal troops.

Shell shock: What today we call PTSD was referred to as battle fatigue during World War II.

Cushy: Starting in the 19th century, Urdu words were picked up by the British military in India. With nearly 9 million forces mobilized from the British Empire to fight World War I, the word becomes popular and is used by civilians, too.