What is the earliest use of the noun "rookie" and why has it become the most common synonym for newcomer? What were its vectors?

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    What has your research already shown? – Jason Bassford May 12 at 15:13
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    @JasonBassford ... that dictionaries can't be trusted and that specialists will find any obscure old quote for these sweet reputation points, beating the dictionaries by a punch. – vectory May 12 at 21:37
  • @vectory But question askers waste everyones' time if they don't at least give a baseline date from the dictionaries they consulted. – curiousdannii May 14 at 2:55
  • True. Everyone's time could be better spent in other pursuits. – Zan700 May 14 at 7:35

A simple search of rookie from etymonline.com

Barrère ["A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant," 1890] has "Rookey (army), a recruit; from the black coat some of them wear," so perhaps directly from rook (n.1). Came into general use in American English during the Spanish-American War.

The rapid growth of a word from a single seed transplanted in a congenial soil is one of the curiosities of literature [your question of 'vector'] Take a single instance. A few weeks ago there was not one American soldier in a thousand who knew there was such a word as "rookey." To-day there are few soldiers and ex-soldiers who have not substituted it for "raw recruit." ["The Midland Monthly," December 1898]

From the OED

1868 Colburn's United Service Mag. We..rather disliked the other things being done away with, fancying..that they would say it was a lot of raw rookies who could not be trusted either to draw a sword or spur a horse.

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    Good. But the following excerpt from your quoted passage is my primary interest. "the rapid growth of a word from a single seed transplanted in a congenial soil is one of the curiosities of literature. " What can you advance to explain the rapid spread of this particular word? What were the vectors of the "rookie" epidemic? – Zan700 May 12 at 15:40
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    @Zan700 Why does any word become popular and make its way into the English lexicon? – Jason Bassford May 12 at 16:20
  • Well, that's an answer. – Zan700 May 12 at 16:49
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    Addition ... rook (n,1) is a species of Eurasian crow. This is perhaps less well known today in the US than it was at the time of the Spanish-American war? – GEdgar May 12 at 18:44
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    There was a 1970's TV series "The Rookies". That's the kind of thing that can make a word popular. Was the Mafia sense of "godfather" well known before the book and movies? – Barmar May 12 at 20:10


[? SE recruit or children’s use rookie, a lookout, if one considers that a lookout would be the least active & and thus newest/youngest member of a gang; note crow-boy, a lookout, used in Southwark in the late 19C and derived f. the rural term for the boy who scared birds away from growing crops]

  • c.1880 ‘O’Reilly’ [US army poem] He drank with all the rookies, and shoved his face as well, / The whole outfit is on the bum, / O’Reilly’s gone to Hell.

From Green’s Dictionary of Slang

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