When were the terms ‘World War I’ and ‘World War II’ coined?

In the aftermath of the war that raged from 1914-18, the people of the world struggled to come to terms with devastation and death the likes of which had never been seen before.

This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of History Revealed

A World War I tank and infantry move forward at Grevilliers in August 1918. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The term ‘world war’ may have appeared in print before the 20th century – the Oxford English Dictionary cites an early use from 1848 – but the war was the first conflict that seemed truly global.

In 1918, while chatting with an American historian, the controversial war correspondent Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à Court Repington realised the recently ended conflict needed a name befitting its scale.

He quickly discounted ‘The German War’ as he didn’t want to give the enemy nation the satisfaction of prominence, so settled on the ‘First World War’. It became the title of his wartime diaries published in 1920.

For most Brits, however, the term ‘The Great War’ was the standard sobriquet for many years.

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, America’s Time magazine immediately adopted ‘WW2’, a phrase copied by President Roosevelt and made official by the US government in 1945.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner. For more fascinating questions by Greg, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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