Words

R.100, St Hubert airfield, Montreal, 1930

If you've ever read anything about the last great British rigid airships, built between 1924 and 1930 as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, you will almost certainly have come across a statement to the effect that R.100 was known as the 'capitalist' airship and R.101 as the 'socialist' airship. This was because the former was designed and built by Vickers and the latter by the Labour government (at least, it was conceived and flown under Labour; most of the construction was actually done under the Tories).

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Evening Telegraph (Dundee), 30 October 1922, 2

In the previous post I looked at the possible origins of the phrase 'big bang' -- as in 'Big Bang' -- in Operation Big Bang, the partial destruction in 1947 of Heligoland, a German island in the North Sea. I also suggested that there was longer history to the phrase 'big bang', which I'll also dig into here -- partly for its own sake, partly to illustrate how easy it is track a term's popularity over time in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). And partly because I love the headline above, over 70 years before the other Big Bang was 'photographed' by COBE.

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Sphere (London), 26 April 1947, 99

There have been many big bangs. One particularly important one is the 'Big Bang' in which the Universe began, according to current cosmological understanding, approximately 13.8 billion years ago. This was not a bang at all, in the sense of an explosion, because there was nothing to explode into -- rather it was space itself which was expanding, as it has continued to do for 13.8 billion years. Why, then, do we use this evocative but misleading name for what is arguably the most important event to have ever taken place? It was famously coined by cosmologist Fred Hoyle in a BBC Third Programme broadcast on 28 March 1949 to describe the expanding universe concept, then the main competing theory to one he helped develop, the (now-discredited) steady-state (or continuous creation) theory (emphasis added):

We now come to the question of applying the observational tests to earlier theories. These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements.1

The term 'big bang' stuck -- or it least it did from the 1970s -- and it now stands for the entire cosmological theory of which it is just one part.2

But why did Hoyle choose that particular phrase, 'big bang'? On one level it is simply catchy, evocative and onomatopoeic. Hoyle himself said later that 'I was constantly striving over the radio -- where I had no visual aids, nothing except the spoken word -- for visual images [...] And that seemed to be one way of distinguishing between the steady-state and the explosive big bang'.3

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  1. Fred Hoyle, script, March 1949; in Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition. Apparently reprinted in Listener, 7 April 1949, but I haven't seen this.[]
  2. Helge Kragh, ‘Big Bang: the etymology of a name’, Astronomy & Geophysics 54, no. 2 (2013): 2.28-2.30.[]
  3. Quoted in ibid., 2.29. Kragh argues, I think persuasively, that Hoyle did not intend 'big bang' to be derisive, as is often said.[]

Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1913-1946 (BNA)

The time has finally come to address the claim I've made in the title of this series of posts, that the air raid somehow vanished. Why did I say that, and what does it mean? Well, look at the plot above. Previously I looked at how often 'air raid' (and related phrases) appeared per issue in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) in each month across the First World War. The above plot, now, is how often 'air raid' appeared per issue in each year from the start of the First World War (when 'air raid' was first used) until the end of the Second. Now you can see that the first peak in 'air raid''s popularity came in 1917, at an average of 0.8 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA; and that this was followed by a second, much bigger peak in 1940 of 5.2 mentions in every newspaper issue in BNA. All of which makes sense.

What's more surprising is what happened in between. From 1921 to 1934, the phrase 'air raid' almost completely disappears from BNA. At the lowest point, 1929, the average number of mentions per issue was just 0.026, or one in about 38. In other words, if you read 38 issues you might expect to read the phrase 'air raid' once, which is more than six weeks of reading a daily. If you want some absolute figures, 'air raid' appears 609 times in the 23054 issues contained in BNA for 1929. So 'air raid' was not a phrase you were at all likely to see in a newspaper in the 1920s and early 1930s.

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Articles with 'air raid' per issue, 1914-1918 (BNA)

In my previous post I looked at the first appearances of the phrase 'air raid' and related words in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). Of course, just because these phrases had been coined by somebody, or even used in a newspaper, it doesn't mean they were widely understood -- they might have taken a long time to catch on, or even be reinvented independently. So, in order to get a truer sense of how widespread these phrases were, we need to look at some n-grams.

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Sphere, 3 April 1915, 8

The term 'air raid' has been around a long time. Not since the first air raid, or even the first air raid of the twentieth century, but from not long after that. The first definite use in the British Newspaper Archive is in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, during the 1913 phantom airship panic, as it happens (bold emphases are mine throughout):

The War Office were about to offer a substantial prize for the best aeroplane engine. They had already obtained an anti-airship gun of wonderful efficiency, and progress had been made in solving the problem of defending this country against foreign air raids. 1

It was still vanishingly rare, though, and only became popular during the First World War. This happened very quickly. The Dundee Courier (quoting the Daily Express) used 'air raid' on 12 August 1914, though clearly more with a sense of reconnaissance rather than bombing:

Daring air raids have revealed all the German positions and movements. 2

More obviously in the familiar sense is the next appearance in BNA, in a Western Gazette headline on 28 August 1914 for an attempted Zeppelin attack on Antwerp:

ANOTHER AIR RAID ON ANTWERP
ZEPPELIN REPULSED.
August 26th. IT is officially stated that the Zeppelin airship attempted last night to repeat its raid upon the city. Measures were taken to defeat the attempt, which the Zeppelin then abandoned. 3

After this point 'air raid' began to be used very widely. (The image above is from the Sphere and shows 'Shells bursting round a Zeppelin during the air raid on Paris on March 20'.) 4

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  1. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 20 March 1913, 7.[]
  2. Courier (Dundee), 12 August 1914, 1.[]
  3. Western Gazette (Yeovil), 28 August 1914, 4.[]
  4. Sphere, 4 April 1915, 8.[]

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The Bystander, 31 May 1911, p. 13

To mark May Day, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, @FleetAirArmMus, tweeted about the Royal Navy's first rigid airship, which was built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness in 1911 in an attempt to match Germany's Zeppelins:

I was surprised by the comment about the airship's name. Probably because of its brief, non-flying existence, it's known by a variety of designations, including R1, HMA (His Majesty's Airship) 1, and HMA Hermione (since HMS Hermione acted as its tender). But it's perhaps best known by an unofficial name, Mayfly, given because, @FleetAirArmMus said, 'it was laid down on water & then took to the air', just like a mayfly. That's the part that surprised me, because I had always understood it to be much more ironic: it may fly, but it might not. And of course Mayfly didn't: it broke its back in September 1911 as it was being taken out of its hangar for its first flight.

But I don't actually know why I think that. Every secondary source I've checked just says it was 'popularly' or 'unofficially' called Mayfly, without providing a source or even an explanation. I'd also assumed that it was a name given by a sceptical press during the two years it took to build the airship, but Wikipedia, citing Philip Jarrett, says it was bestowed by the 'lower deck', i.e. the sailors. So I decided to look for some primary sources.

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Last year I tried to run to ground the phrase 'England is no longer an island', usually said to be uttered by Lord Northcliffe in 1906 after hearing of an early Santos-Dumont flight. 1 But the earliest source I could find which claimed that Northcliffe said it dated to 1922, it only became common in an aviation context after Blériot's cross-channel flight in 1909, and it was anyway used in non-aviation contexts as early as 1846, positively as well as negatively. So I suggested that Northcliffe took a phrase that had been bouncing around in the British public sphere for decades and applied it to the coming of flight. But even so, there's no contemporary evidence that he was the first to do so, or even that he ever did so publicly or influentially. As he was a powerful press baron with a deep interest in aviation it just seems plausible that he must be the origin.
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  1. Based on the accounts of two biographies, one of Northcliffe and one of his aviation correspondent Harry Harper; but the details differ slightly, suggesting they are drawing on different sources.[]

Sunday Post, 12 May 1935, 14

I recently came across a few more examples from 1920s and 1930s newspapers of the 'Red Baron' being used in reference to Manfred von Richthofen, which I suggested undermined my argument that, in essence, we call him that because of Snoopy. But instead of shrugging my shoulders I decided to get my data on and dig into some numbers. And they confirm my original conclusion: that Richthofen was not called the Red Baron during his lifetime, and it's only from the 1960s on that it became almost impossible to call him anything else.
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Sunday News, 30 July 1944, 4

Since this thread received absolutely no love over on Twitter, some lazyblogging of a 1944 article entitled 'Jargon of the skies' by James E. Wellard on RAF and US Army slang, published in the Toronto Star Weekly (via the Perth Sunday Times):


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