How and when did World War II get its name?
June 6, 2004 3:27 PM   Subscribe

How and when did World War II get its name?
posted by jjg to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
apocryphal-sounding net-fact is:

"28 Apr 1942: The ongoing global conflict is given the name "World War II" after a Gallup Poll is taken."

You'd think Gallup would mention this though. And I don't see the question in this poll. I think this link may be the answer. 9/10/45, in a memo.
posted by jessamyn at 3:49 PM on June 6, 2004

It's interesting a numbering system self implies a potential WWIII ie. nuclear war. They didn't call it "The War to End All Wars" .. or "The Greatest War" (WWI was originally called "The Great War", at least in Europe, implying nothing could ever be worse). Perhaps the numbering system was a recognition that big wars can happen again and we need to be vigilant to stop them.
posted by stbalbach at 4:12 PM on June 6, 2004

I've seen World War II referred to on memorials as simply "the World War" -- ie. "dedicated to the fallen of the Great War 1914-18 and the World War 1939-45".

I'd also note that calling it "World War II" is quite an American thing -- many Brits tend to prefer "the Second World War". People of a certain age will look disgusted at the II and say something like "those damn Yanks -- they think it was a sequel".
posted by reklaw at 4:21 PM on June 6, 2004

they think it was a sequel

It wasn't?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 4:25 PM on June 6, 2004

The Russians know it as "The Great Patriotic War".
posted by briank at 5:32 PM on June 6, 2004

I'd also note that calling it "World War II" is quite an American thing -- many Brits tend to prefer "the Second World War".

I was going to note the fact that it probably has only come to be "world war two" as opposed to "the second world war" in recent years (ie, not directly following the war) - which would explain why it got the numbering system as opposed to another appellation altogether - not because people were expecting further wars, but because people needed to distinguish between the two "great" or "world" wars.

Basically, while I think it's an interesting question, my guess is that the answer is more mundane than you might have hoped - that it's called world war two because that's what people started calling it. Bush can call this conflict Operation Whatever he wants but that's not what it's going to be known in history as - the name will be what it ends up being referred to as in the general population. Hence the first gulf war didn't get GHWB's baptism, but gets called the gulf war. And this one will probably someday be "Gulf War II"...
posted by mdn at 5:53 PM on June 6, 2004

The memo jessamyn linked to says:
The term "World War II" has been used in at least seven public laws to designate this period of hostilities. Analysis of publications and radio programs indicates that this term has been accepted by common usage.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:54 PM on June 6, 2004

Will the current hostilities be known as Gulf War II?
posted by PrinceValium at 7:39 PM on June 6, 2004

This was, I believe, a topic I investigated in my blog a while back. Since it's offline right now I can't link to it.

My recollection is that I was able to find a photograph of a London newspaper boy in a sandwich board bearing the headline "SECOND WORLD WAR!" on September 3, the date the UK declared war on Germany. Also, relevant newsgroup posting:

Les said:
"WWII became the *common* reference name for the war in April, 1942. They had to think of what to call it because prior to WWII the previous war, WW1, was officially called The World War by the U.S. government But the war wasn't *officially* named WWII by the government until Sept. 11, 1945, for the inclusion of that name in the Federal Register."

Lord JubJub said:
"Time magazine was referring to WW2 in 1939."

Mark Brader talked a whole bunch of good stuff::
"In the OED1 and its Supplement -- I haven't checked the OED2 -- the first cite for "world-war", so spelled, is from 1909. It's from a Westminster Gazette article referring to the potential use of airships as troop transports. The war then in progress was called "this world-war" in a 1914 book, "What of Today?" by B. Vaughan. However, note that these cites use the phrase as a description, not a proper name.

The first cite for "World War" in a proper-name context is from 1919, when a heading in the Manchester Guardian referred to "World War No. 2". Similarly, in 1930, H.G. Wells referred to "the Second World War" in a section title in a novel. "First World War" is cited in 1931, but the quote describes it as a particular person's usage (it's not clear if this is a real or fictional person).

The first cite after the real Second World War started is also the first to use the terms "World War I" and "World War II", which always seem slightly flippant to me. So I'm not at all surprised to see that the source is Time magazine -- in the September 18 and 11 issues, respectively, of 1939. That's exactly the style that Time was written in back then, and I'll make a guess that it was Time that popularized the terminology.

The name "the Great War" had previously been applied to the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon; but it was applied to what we now call the First World War soon after it started. The first cite is from Canada -- Maclean's magazine, October 1914. "Some wars name themselves", they said. "This is the Great War."

I understand that in the Soviet Union, the term "Great Patriotic War" was used rather than "Second World War". I don't know if this refers only to their own theater or the entire world war, though."

And Colin Rosenthal shared some other stuff about WW1:
"The phrase "First World War" was coined by Repington in 1919 (according to a footnote in AJP Taylor's "England 1914-1945"). No, I don't know who Repington was or what the context was, but it doesn't seem that improbable. Presumably he recognised that the late war had been a new kind of war, a world war, and was the first of its kind. Possibly the name didn't _stick_ until later."

The difference with this war was that everyone knew it was coming and dreaded it; the last war, aka the Great War or, commonly by then, "the" World War, was much discussed in relation to the present circumstances. Many had expected, for example, the Czech crisis to be the trigger. I think everyone rather expected that if hostilities broke out it would become a second World War, so the terminology was already close at hand.

As for our present circumstances, there were a few attempts at "Gulf War II" in the medja last year, but it looks now like "the Iraq War" will win out, at least as a US term. "Gulf War" at least embraced the idea that it involved two Persian Gulfshore states (and several more were represented in the coalition); the 2003 invasion, however, had little to do with the Gulf logistically or politically.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on June 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

Charles Repington was the influential British journalist who published his war diaries as The First World War, 1914-1918 in 1920. This is one of the earliest uses of the phrase, but Repington's use was an exception among British writers.

David Reynolds' "The Origins of the Two 'World Wars': Historical Discourse and International Politics" (The Journal of Contemporary History, Jan. 2003) is a very good article on this topic.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:41 AM on June 7, 2004

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