When did World War 2 start being called a "world war" and when did it start being called World War 2? Thurber's The Last Flower (copyright 1939) makes reference to World War 12 so I'm curious as to whether he invented the sequential numbering of wars. According to Wikipedia, the book was published in November of 1939 (so one would assume it was written earlier) and the conflict in Europe was still relatively young and had not developed into a "world war" yet.

Another Wikipedia page says that WW1 "was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until the start of World War II in 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter." But there is no citation so I don't know if Thurber was following a convention within 2 months of the invasion of Poland or was creating a system of naming wars that others then followed.

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    yeah, it seems that Time Magazine was using "World War II" possibly before September of 1939. Now I'm wondering how much before (one person told me June which I am shocked by). Now, calling something WW# before it happens isn't a stretch because we have a practice of numbering. I'm trying to see where that starts.
    – rosends
    Jan 30, 2013 at 19:43
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    It wouldn't surprise me if the doomsayers were already referring to an expected future World War II (or Second World War) before it even started. The reason we don't mind talking about WW1 and WW2 is partly that post-Hiroshima it's mostly assumed that WW3 would be an unnecessary term, since it would probably all be over very quickly, and there wouldn't be many people left to talk about it afterwards. So it's not like we're going to have a very long sequence to remember. Jan 30, 2013 at 19:49
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    This would be better off on history.stackexchange.com . Jan 30, 2013 at 19:54
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    @FumbleFingers "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. " - Albert Einstein.
    – Marcus_33
    Jan 30, 2013 at 19:54
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    @coleopterist It's quite possible he published them earlier, but they would have been in German!
    – Marcus_33
    Jan 30, 2013 at 20:03

3 Answers 3


OED says that the Manchester Guardian coined "World War No. 2" on 18 February 1919, "with reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War (1914-18)."

Their next citation for "World War II" is Time Magazine on 11 September 1939.

The phrase "Second World War" appeared in Political Science Quarterly in September 1942; but it had been previously used by H G Wells in The Autocracy of Mr Parham in 1930.

  • If the first use in print of the Roman numerals was indeed in Sept of 1939 then I wonder when Thurber came up with his idea. Thanks.
    – rosends
    Jan 30, 2013 at 20:26

It looks like Time magazine may have been the one that coined the phrase.

If this wikipedia article on the term is to be trusted, the September 1939 Time magazine article was the first reference to World War 2. WW2 was predicted well before it actually broke out and the magazine likely had the term prepared ahead of time. Time also has the first recorded reference to "World War 1", in June of 1939. There had been references to "The First World War" prior to that.

  • that article flies in the face of the WWI wikipedia entry which claims (sans citation) "After the onset of the Second World War in 1939, the terms World War I or the First World War became standard, with British and Canadian historians favouring the First World War, and Americans World War I. Both of these terms had also been used during the Interwar period." Imagine that...wikipedia contradicting itself ;)
    – rosends
    Jan 30, 2013 at 20:25

The January 1919 book China and the World War at page 85 says:

Should she be defeated, Germany still can — after the conclusion of peace — send a fleet to war against us. And as the Powers will be afraid of a second world-war, who will come to our aid?

  • The problem is that in the example "second world-war" is not a proper noun. There is a difference between a second world war and the "Second World War".
    – Greybeard
    May 11, 2022 at 15:34

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