Reader Theories on a Language Mystery, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader follows the lead of the earlier emails compiled by Adrienne and digs deeper into the archives:

I also went back through some old newspapers to see if I could track the usage of the phrase “mass shooting.” Your readers are right that the uptick in the 1940s is because of coverage of Nazi atrocities in WWII.

The term predates the Nazis, though. Interestingly, it was almost always used in reference to governmental/military acts. I found examples of “mass shootings” conducted in Romania in 1938 and 1939 (the Romanian government was already allied with the Nazis and fascists by that point); in 1937, there were reports of the “mass shootings” of lepers by the Chinese government; and there’s a reference to a “mass shooting” incident during the Spanish Civil War in the NYT in 1936.

But, the term was first bandied about during the Bolshevik revolution. The first mention I could find was in 1920: “Numerous hostages should be taken from the bourgeois and officer classes. At the slightest attempt to resist, mass shooting should be applied at once.”

Prior to 1920, all incidences of the phrase “mass shooting” that I could find (using ProQuest and were references to shootings that happened in Massachusetts, references to something like “a black fiery mass shooting up into the air,” or the reports of the shooting deaths of persons with the surname “Mass.” The first story I could find about a civilian mass shooting was in 1934, during a political parade in Pennsylvania [seen to the left]. The next was in 1935, when a worker at the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania ran wild.

Interesting that in its infancy, the term was mostly reserved for the acts of governments the U.S. didn’t trust.