Today is 11 November, Armistice Day, on which we commemorate the end of the First World War. Or, World War I. That’s how we refer to the conflict now, but it’s actually had surprisingly many names.
At the time it was known as The War that will End War, or The War to End All Wars. Even during the war, people were cynical about the optimism of this name, and now it’s only used sardonically. It was also called The Great War, which originally used great in the older sense of large, though the positive connotations of the word meant that that name also didn’t last too long.
Now of course, with historical perspective, World War I and The First World War make sense. Curiously, I’ve noticed that the war is often referred to as la guerre de 14 – 18 (the 14 – 18 war) in Belgium, and to an extent in France too (in addition to la guerre de 39 – 45). There may be no particular logic behind these names, but I wonder if they’re related to the fact that parts of both France and Belgium were occupied during both wars, and both played host to a tremendous amount of bloodshed. Perhaps these colder, purely factual names are an attempt to create some distance from these terrible times in history.
In English at least, we can still see some influence of this war on the language we use today. Blighty, as a nickname for Great Britain, is believed to come from vilayati, the Hindi word for foreign, used by Indian soldiers during the war, and corrupted to Blighty by English soldiers.
Shell shock also originates from the First World War, and referred originally to the PTSD (which hadn’t been coined at the time) suffered by soldiers due to the intensity of bombardments. But perhaps the most gruesome term is basket case. Used informally now to refer to someone so mentally disabled as to be helpless, it originally referred to soldiers who had lost all their limbs and had to be transported by barrow.
Though the war ended 99 years ago, it still exerts an influence on our culture and language, helping to remember the horrendous loss of life and dreadful conditions suffered by all who fought.