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Tracking the etymology

A reader asks:

I have been trying to track down the true origin of the phrase “dirty little war”. Unfortunately that phrase caught on quick in the days of Nam. It became mainstream many decades ago. Suspect it is passé today if not yesterday.

Earliest reference I can locate in a quick web search is 1963 but feel that is too too late.

Any ideas?

Me, I dunno. I can imagine some John Company types saying it about one of the Afghans for example, but have no idea.

7 thoughts on “Tracking the etymology”

  1. I believe Theodore Roosevelt described the Spanish-American as “a splendid little war” (not sure if before, during or after though). Maybe it was somebody who disliked his sentiment trying to turn it round?

  2. I have somewhere ( can’t find it now ) a book about the USAF written in the early 60s that talks about the ait force providing logistical support to the “little wars” of the fifties ( I assumed that they meant in Latin America ).

  3. Interesting that the only citation pre 1965 in that Google ngram is for a book of memoirs of an English soldier in the American War of Independence

  4. @Diogenes – pre-1920. There are a small number of mentions between 1920 and 1960, after which it really takes off.

  5. It was common enough in 1913 for HG Wells to write a set of rules for playing wargames called “Little Wars”.
    Don’t know if they were dirty. I suppose your knees wouldn’t be clean after a session.

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