Veterans’ Day Word Origins

The armistice that ended the fighting of World War I was signed in Marshal Ferdinand Foch's railroad car in the Forest of Compiègne, France, on November 11, 1918. Celebrations were held in Paris, London, and New York City. During the 1920s, the annual observance of the armistice was known as Remembrance Day in England and Canada and Armistice Day or Victory Day in the United States. It became more of an official US memorial in 1921 when the remains of an unidentified American soldier from World War I who had died fighting in France lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. for three days. Then he was buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. At the same time, the burial of unknown soldiers at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris took place. November 11 became a national US holiday in 1938.

Veterans' groups lobbied to have November 11 set aside to pay tribute to those who had fought in the world wars as well as the Korean War. In 1954, a bill was passed that officially changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans' Day in the US. Naturalization ceremonies have come to be an important part of the day's activities.

Grammatically, it should be Veterans' Day with a possessive apostrophe (i.e. a day for or belonging to veterans), but you will often find this holiday spelled without the apostrophe. The word veteran ultimately comes from Latin veter/vetus, "old" (which became veteranus, "of long experience") and the word's original meaning was that of an old soldier or one who had a long history of military service. Our modern meaning in North America is any ex-serviceperson.

The word armistice is derived from the Latin armistitium, from arma, "arms" and -stitium, "stopping." It means a temporary cessation from fighting or the use of arms, or a short truce.

The poppy is a small red flower that grows wild in the fields of Europe — where many of those who died in World War I are buried. Poppies have long been associated with World War I memorials through the poem, "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian Army physician John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.

Flanders is the name of the whole western part of Belgium and Flanders Fields' is also the name of an American war cemetery near Waregem, Belgium, where several hundred Americans are buried. Flanders was the site of heavy fighting during World War I and the poppy came to symbolize both the beauty of the land and the blood shed there. In several countries, like the US, paper poppies are sold to raise money for the support of veterans and are worn in the lapel as a sign of remembrance.

A tomb is any place of burial, but to most it means a chamber or vault in the earth. The word is derived from Latin tumba and Greek tymbos, "sepulchral mound." The principal observation of Veterans' Day in the US still takes place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sentries maintain a vigil at the gravesite throughout the year and, since 1960, a flaming torch first lit in Antwerp, Belgium, has been mounted there. Taps are sounded at 11:00 a.m. on November 11 and a wreath is place on the shrine.

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