World War - Origins of The Term

Origins of The Term

The term World War was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the First World War broke out, probably as a literal translation of the German word Weltkrieg. German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the word in the title of his anti-British novel Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume ("The World War: German Dreams") as early as 1904, published in English as The coming conquest of England. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language as being in April 1909, in the pages of the Westminster Gazette.

It was recognized that the complex system of opposing alliances—the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire vs. the French Third Republic, the Russian Empire, and the British Empire was likely to lead to a worldwide conflict in the event of war breaking out. The fact that the powers involved had large overseas empires virtually guaranteed that a war would be worldwide, as the colonies' resources would be a crucial strategic factor. The same strategic considerations also ensured that the combatants would strike at each other's colonies, thus spreading the fighting far more widely than in the pre-colonial era.

Other languages have also adopted the "World War" terminology; for instance, in French, the two World Wars are the Guerres mondiales; in German, the Erste und Zweite Weltkrieg (World War I was only known or commonly recognized in public as der Weltkrieg in Germany when it was over, while prior to the war the word was used in the more abstract meaning of "a global conflict"); in Italian, the Guerra Mondiale; in Russian the мировые войны (miroviye voyni); in Spanish the Guerra Mundial and so on.

The term First World War was used in the book The First World War: A Photographic History, edited by playwright and war veteran Laurence Stallings and published in 1933. The term "World War I" was invented by Time magazine in its issue of June 12, 1939. In that same issue, the term World War II was first used speculatively by Time magazine to describe the upcoming war. The first use for the actual war came in its issue of September 11, 1939.

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