02 December 2011

History fatigue

I've just watched an episode of Anthony Horowitz's second world war police drama sequence Foyle's War, in which the eponymous Foyle tells his son that he (the son) is suffering from "combat fatigue".

My immediate assumption was that this was an anachronism. At a guess, I'd have fairly confidently said that the term dated from the 1960s. Not that I am viscerally opposed to anachronisms; it just surprised me in a fiction known for its diligent research.

Looking up combat fatigue, however, I discover that I couldn't be more wrong.

The OED seems to locate "combat fatigue" (“n. a nervous disorder resulting from prolonged or severe battle experience”) 1943 – firmly in Foyle's time. There are references to it in US medical journals from the mid to late 1940s, even though the earliest PubMed hits are from 1945.

Google Labs' Ngram shows a peak frequency at 1948. It also shows occurrences from as early as 1860, but a quick sampling suggests that this is a red herring – a dozen spot checks all yield either usage such as “At present we have no drugs that combat fatigue of the central nervous system directly”* or retrospective reference from later dates.

On a lazy search, then, it seems that this description dates from about twenty years earlier than I had assumed.

* Psychiatric bulletin of the New York State hospitals: Volume 2, Page 311, 1917)

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