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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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  • Why not just "world war" or "The World War"? It is quite strange why would anyone call it the first one when there was no other one yet. – Vladimir F Jan 3 at 13:25
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    @VladimirF "First World War" seems to have come into usage in 1939, which is when the Second World War started, which makes perfect sense (you also see that First and Second World War are in near-lockstep with one another, suggesting they are indeed used in a differentiating manner). Tough to tell from the axis, but there may have been a few uses in 1938 by people who saw it coming - some individuals foresaw the inevitability of a second world war when the treaty was signed to end the first one in 1918. – Nuclear Wang Jan 3 at 14:00
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The existing answers ignore the fact that the term "The World War" was used already during the war itself and even though maybe less commonly than "The Great War", it was not rare at all. In fact "The Great War" was used even before WW1 as a name for other conflicts.

The need to add a distinguishing "First" only emerged when the possibility of another world war was being discussed and especially when the second world war started out. However, the "The World War" name itself was quite common already during WW1.

enter image description here

You can read the "King's Complete History of the World War" (1922), or The 110th Infantry in the World War (1919).

The term was used also in other languages and in some of them it was much more popular than the equivalent of "The Great War". For example the famous "The Good Soldier Švejk", the title in full would actually be "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War" ("... za světové války"). Published from 1921 to 1923.

And in German:

enter image description here

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    (+1, interesting point) "grosse” is actually spelt with a ß and a lower case "g" in standard German and Google doesn't account for the equivalence. The definite article and adjective declension also add further complications. If you account for all that, you'll find many more instances of "Great War". Try running "Grosse Krieg, grosse Krieg,(großer Krieg + großen Krieg + große Krieg + großem Krieg + großes Krieges)". Your overall conclusion still holds though, as can be seen by running "(Welkrieg + Weltkrieges),(großer Krieg + großen Krieg + große Krieg + großem Krieg + großes Krieges)" – Relaxed Jan 4 at 13:52
  • @Relaxed I intentionally stayed with nominative and intentionally with the definitive article, to avoid false hits from Erster and Zweiter Weltkrieg or from some random war that was also big, but the ß is a clear mistake. I certainly do not want to filter out references to the second world war when it was named just "der Weltkrieg" or "der Große Krieg". I only want to avoid hitting actual instances of "der Erste Weltkrieg" or "der Zweite Weltkrieg" and similar. The article in the English search is kept for the very same reason. – Vladimir F Jan 4 at 14:21
  • Yes, good point, it's difficult to search for that phrase but limiting it to sentences with the definite article seems a bit arbitrary and would miss most references to the war. The second peak around 1940 also suggests that this is not enough to filter out references to the Second World War. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:24
  • Apparently I was wrong about missing most references to the war: "Weltkrieg + Weltkrieges,der Weltkrieg,der Weltkrieg + den Weltkrieg + des Weltkrieges + dem Weltkrieg" But the nominative is very limiting and there are many instances of the genitive in the corpus. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:30
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I think Russell Borogove approach is correct. But the change of concept is sensitive for each country. While you look in english is natural that the change occurs during world war two, because for english speaking people both wars were important. I mean, when world war two becomes an important war as the first one, then the change happens in english.
But, for France the change is far later in time. In 1960 decade. Why? Because for France the first world war was more important than the second one, hence for them, first world war was still the "grande guerre" for a long time.

French

While if you look in a neutral language, like spanish (no spanish speaking country was affected by the war). The change is almost inmediate ("primera guerra" is "first world war"), during the second world war.

Spanish

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    (+1) You seem to have ran your Spanish search on the French corpus, where there are very few instances (hence the jagged curve). Doing the same on the Spanish corpus confirms your finding and the curve makes your point even more forcefully. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:00
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    The French search seem to miss many instances, you did not use the same capitalisation in both cases. It seems the curves partly reflects a switch between "grande guerre" and "Grande Guerre". It's tricky because "la Grande Guerre" would typically be capitalised today whereas "une grande guerre" would not necessarily refer to WW1. Similarly "première guerre" can be found in many other phrases like "première guerre punique". But I think case-insensitive searches might be more appropriate. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:05
  • If you run "grande guerre,Grande Guerre,première guerre,Première Guerre,grande guerre + Grande Guerre,première guerre + Première Guerre" you see that "première guerre" peaked earlier and was replaced by "Première Guerre" but the totals seem to match the Spanish curves. – Relaxed Jan 4 at 14:08
  • Both wars were important for France. But WWII was largely a civil war in France and so perceived differently. One doesn't usually call a civil war "great". – C Monsour Jan 4 at 16:03

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