Today’s vocabulary lesson

Ready for another column on the Great War? (I warned you I was fanatical about it.) This won’t deal with battles and strategy, however. It’s about the simple things. Like words.

World War I, I have discovered in my research, produced innumerable contributions to our vocabulary: words and phrases still in use today by people who (like me) have had no idea of their origin.

For example: Have you ever been so tired, you just conked out? If so, you were replicating a disabled aircraft.

“Conk” originated with the pilots of the U.S. Army Air Service (antecedent of the Air Force). It reportedly was the last sound the engines of the early bi-planes made before catastrophic failure.

If you did conk out, it would be nice to have done so in a cushy bed. “Cushy” arrived on the Western Front with British troops who had served in India and comes from an Urdu word, “kushi,” meaning “pleasant” or “easy-going.”

If not for WWI, there would be no souvenir shops in Times Square or down the Shore. Until then, such places sold keepsakes. “Souvenir” was the French word for remembrance, incorporated into the English language by the soldiers.

The enemy also broadened our vocabulary, with Allied troops adopting “ersatz,” the German term for “substitute,” and “kaput,” which means the same thing in both languages (although the Germans spelled it with two t’s).

“Chow,” meaning food, became common slang thanks to the British soldiers, who had gotten it from British sailors, supposedly after visiting Asia.

When you’re really getting down to business, you’re “digging in.” Which comes from the description of how all those WWI trenches were made.

And speaking of which, there is the still-popular trench coat, which offered excellent protection against the rain and mud. It made its debut in the British Army, but only officers were allowed to wear them. According to www.worldwar1.com, “The ranks just got wet.”

The ranks also had to deal with other “lousy” conditions. Literally. Lice infestation was inevitable in the trenches.

And haven’t you heard someone say, “That’s over the top”? Meaning “extreme.” “Over the top” referred to the troops climbing out of the trenches to advance toward the enemy across No Man’s Land.

“No Man’s Land,”I had always thought, originated in World War I. But I have since found two sources which state that the term was in use from the 14th century and described “waste ground between two kingdoms.” (I intend to do more research on that.)

And then, we have “doughboy,” which was the slang term for an American soldier. There are apparently innumerable theories as to its origin, and no clear consensus. You are welcome to do your own investigation. But please be aware, it has nothing to do with Pillsbury.

– Karen Zautyk

 If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, the Oxford English Dictionary has compiled “100 Words That Define The First World War,” accessible at http://oxford.ly/ww- 1word 

The Observer Staff