I had an interesting question from a student in my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course today. He said he’d heard that wars were named according to a formula of sorts: the second of the two countries mentioned was the victor. In other words, the Austro-Prussian war was won by the Prussians, the Franco-Prussian war by the Prussians, the Sino-Japanese war by Japan, the Russo-Japanese war by Japan, and so on.
I admit I was taken aback. I’ve never come across such an idea before, although I have pondered when various wars gain a formal name, shifting from “the present war” to the “Great War” to “World War I”.
Or the recent preference for naming (small) wars after the military operational nomenclature (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom…), or the historical amnesia that leads people today to refer to the second U.S. war against Saddam Hussein as simply the “Iraq War” (“Gulf War II”?).
So I replied to the student with some skepticism:
- “What about all those wars that don’t explicitly mention the belligerents at all? If the rule does exist, does it only apply to wars between two, and only two, countries?”
- “What about wars whose names change over time, e.g. the War of the League of Augsburg becoming the War of the Grand Alliance becoming the “Nine Years War?”
- “What about the wars that are called different names, depending on the country?”
- “Besides, who exactly would be in charge of ‘officially’ naming a war? Was there some naming committee that met and named the wars? Kinda like medieval heralds who met after a battle to agree on what to call it?”
Looking back, I think I usually thought about war names in terms of convenience rather than signaling real historical meaning: which country names had a good ‘combining form’? China (Sino-) or Japan (Japo-??). But that clearly is inadequate, since the Franco-Prussian war could just as easily be the Prusso-French war. So now I’m not so sure.
Needless to say, I am willing to chalk it up to somebody leading my student astray with a shaky generalization from a few cases, but perhaps someone here can enlighten me. Have you heard of this idea? Has anyone written a detailed study of the naming of wars? Is it possible this is, or was, a real convention? Is it possible that all these war names were chosen (in English obviously) at around the same time, and that there was a convention used, at least at that time? Or maybe the first war named with this formula was copied for later wars? I don’t know if this Google Ngram Viewer chart helps or not:
Any illumination would be appreciated.