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That's the question, when did "The Great War" get named "World War I"?

I'm assuming it must have been at least after WWII started.

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    According to an answer here as early as 1918. – Steve Bird Aug 16 '17 at 4:49
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    As per my answer to this question, as early as Feb. 18, 1919. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 16 '17 at 4:56
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    Actually. that is incorrect. The Manchester Guardian article only mentions "World War No. 2" in its headline. There's no mention of World War 1 in the article at all, and the OED entry was written much later. The first public use of the phrase "First World War" seems to have been in the title of memoirs written in 1920, and the first public use of the phrase "World War 1" appears to have been by Time Magazine in June 1939. – sempaiscuba Aug 16 '17 at 13:48
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    @PieterGeerkens While the answer you linked to is correct for WW2, the article in The Guardian doesn't mention "World War 1 or the "First World War" at all (see my other comment above). You can read the original Guardian article on Newspapers.com - it requires a subscription, but they offer 7 days free access when you register. – sempaiscuba Aug 17 '17 at 16:47
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    Strangely enough, not a duplicate. Apparently, people were speculating about "World War II" before making a firm decision to name the 1914-18 war, "World War I." – Tom Au Aug 22 '17 at 2:55
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The first public use of the phrase "First World War" seems to have been in the title of memoirs published in 1920, and the first public use of the phrase "World War 1" is generally accepted to have been by Time Magazine in June 1939. However, this still doesn't quite answer the question. In 1920, and even in 1939, the term "The Great War" was still far more common in general use.

Interestingly, various people have done analyses to discover when the terms "First World War" and "World War 1" became more popular than "The Great War" in general use. I wasn't able to find one that would stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny (sources of potential bias in the data are obvious in every example I found), but this article does contain a nice interactive graph.

The suggestion is that use of "First World War" and "World War 1" overtook the phrase "The Great War" in general use in about 1941.


The first known use of the phrase "The First World War" in any context is actually in an officer's diary from 1918. The diary records a conversation between officers where they discussed what historians should call the war. Obviously, however, this was not a "public" document.

Another interesting point from that article is that, even as late as January 1959, the "Second World War" was often referred to as "The Second Great War".

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According to Google ngrams, "first world war" started to overtake "great war" more or less right after the end of WW2. None of "world war 1/i", "world war 2/ii", "ww1", or "ww2" show up in significant numbers compared to these terms. Not all of the "great war" hits refer to WW1, as the numbers are substantial well before 1914!

Here are some plots (note 'English' versus 'British english' corpus):

Google ngrams graph, english corpus

Google ngrams graph, british english corpus

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