Our lexicographer considers terms arising during World War II, and in the postwar era.
A number of linguistic oddities arose during World War II, and perhaps surprisingly, some of them have survived. One of them is gizmo, for a mechanical device or part whose correct name one either doesn’t know or can’t remember. U.S. sailors and marines used it as a synonym for doohickey, whatchamacallit, thingamajig, and the like. The magazine Leatherneck defined the word in November 1942: “When you need a word for something in a hurry and can’t think of one, it’s a gizmo.” After the war, civilians widely used it in the same way, and still do.
Another such word is gobbledygook, at first meaning pretentious nonsense as it appears in bureaucratic jargon. Maury Maverick, chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation, allegedly coined it in 1944. Maverick explained it originated as a combination of the old turkey gobbler gobbledy-gobbledy gobbling his way about the barnyard, ending up covered in mud, or gook. People later began using the word in a more general sense—for any kind of nonsensical jargon.
Several writers claim the word has an earlier origin. One holds that a mess sergeant during World War I used that word to describe the answer he received from the Quartermaster Corps when he complained about receiving a shipment of beans instead of potatoes. Although the word did not become well known until about 1945, it remains current.
The term snow job also originated during World War II, and it had nothing to do with the weather. Rather, GIs used it to denigrate exaggerated flattery intended to cover up some real issue. One might present one’s superior with an elaborate, totally fictional excuse for a misdemeanor, in effect snowing the officer under with words.
Another such expression is Mickey Mouse, describing something foolish, pointless, or silly. It obviously alludes to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons, which were very popular in the 1930s but had become slick in execution and childish or silly in conception.
In military use, it had several meanings. Servicemen applied it to petty regulations and what they considered unnecessary inspections. In Royal Air Force usage, it denoted an electric gun trigger or bomb-release mechanism, but here the sense of “trivial” doesn’t apply. However, it also was used derisively about instructional films, especially one dealing with the prevention of sexually transmitted disease, called a Mickey Mouse movie.
In civilian use, it is the sense of trivial, foolish, or silly that has survived, and also as a noun, as in “He’s just talking gibberish—total Mickey Mouse.” Some authorities dispute this term’s origin. They hold it was derived from the acronym for the navy’s Military Indoctrination Centers (MIC), where undisciplined recruits were sent to shape up. Few, however, cite this view.
Two terms actually came into use in the aftermath of World War II. One was CARE Package. In civilian life, a care package refers to a box of goodies sent to a college student or summer camper far from home. CARE, an acronym for Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, originated just after the war’s end as an emergency food relief program. From 1946 to 1949, CARE delivered more than 658,000 packages to Europe, including two hundred thousand during the Berlin Airlift.
The first packages contained surplus army rations, which the United States had stored for use in the invasion of Japan. Later CARE began sending packages designed for civilian families, often customizing them for specific ethnic groups (creating, for example, Asian or kosher packages). Still later, it introduced packages with tool kits and various other kinds of equipment.
In the twenty-first century, CARE changed its name to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc., and it no longer draws only from American resources. Nevertheless, the CARE Package, which actually is a registered trademark, survives.
The second term that became current mainly after the war is genocide. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Lithuanian legal expert and linguist, coined the word in 1943. Early in his legal career, he devoted himself to outlawing crimes against humanity and especially crimes against ethnic groups. In 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, he fled to Sweden and then moved to New York, where he continued his campaign for a convention against genocide.
The convention, adopted by the United Nations on December 9, 1948, came into force in 1951. The United States did not ratify it until 1988. More than a decade later, in 2001, an International Criminal Court was established to give a legal home to the prosecution of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. At first associated principally with massive extermination of Jews in Hitler’s Nazi Germany (Lemkin learned much later that his own parents had died in the Holocaust), the term genocide has since been applied to numerous other such situations. These include the Ottoman Turks’ assaults on Armenians and Iraq’s persecution of Assyrians (the acts that spurred Lemkin originally), and more recently conflicts in Africa such as in Rwanda and Darfur.
Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.