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Tweet geekery and epic crowdsourcing: an Oxford English Dictionary update


Today the Oxford English Dictionary announces its latest update, which sees the inclusion of over 1200 newly revised and updated words. The additions bring the OED’s total number of entries – including headwords, sub-senses, phrases, and compounds – to over 823,000. Let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing words included in the OED for the first time…

Tweets and other technology

Those following @OED’s Twitter feed will be pleased to know that our entries for follow (verb), follower (noun), and tweet (noun and verb) have been expanded to include the social media senses, usage of which has exploded in the past six years. There has been, for example, a threefold increase in instances of the word tweet between 2006 and 2007 (when Twitter began), and by 2012, this had increased to 50 times.

If you want to provide online commentary on an event while it is taking place, particularly in frequent, short updates – but tweets are a bit too short for your liking – you might well be familiar with the term live-blog (noun), which the new OED entry dates to 2004 (with live-blogging, noun and verb, appearing the following year).

Technological vocabulary is an area of language which is always developing to meet new requirements (the noun redirect, for instance, has the sense ‘an instance of redirecting a URL for a web page to another’ added, dating to 1997) – but it can also reflect longstanding practices. While the OED has been using crowdsourcing techniques since the nineteenth century, the new entry suggests the concept pre-dates the word, which is generally attributed to Jeff Howe in the American magazine Wired in 2006. Mouseover is another newly added word which combines two extant terms – in this case describing the action of using a mouse to move a cursor over an element on a web page or similar. And of course the e-reader has also become firmly embedded in our vocabulary: it can denote a person who reads electronic texts (this sense dates from 1995) or a hand-held electronic device used for reading e-books or other text in digital form (1999).

Signs of the times

While every word entering the OED requires several independent examples over a period of time, a number of additions to the OED resonate with current themes in the news. Debt trap, a situation in which a debt is difficult or impossible to repay (typically because of high interest payments), is a brand new entry, although it appears the ‘debt trap’ isn’t a new phenomenon: the OED team has discovered the term in use as early as 1857. Pay day loan, the short-term loan with a high rate of interest typically used to cover expenses while awaiting wages, is similarly older than might be expected – a new OED entry, but currently first attested to 1937. Similarly, although the fiscal cliff was popularized with reference to an (ultimately averted) U.S. financial plan scheduled for 1 January 2013, the new OED entry shows that it is actually first recorded in 1957.

These words might be enough to turn you to binge drinking – consuming a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time – although this concept is also the product of an earlier generation, with the term first recorded in use in 1964 (and the term binge drinker dating further back, to 1946).

Word geekery

The earliest sense of geekery to be included in the OED refers to bizarre or grotesque acts performed at carnivals or circuses (from 1947, although now rare). The OED now includes the more familiar sense (first identified from 1990) referring to behaviour typical of a geek – specifically devotion to a particular subject or pursuit which might be regarded as unfashionable or highly technical.

The Simpsons geeks might be pleased to hear that the American slang term to have a cow has also made its debut in the OED. However, the phrase meaning essentially ‘to have a fit’ is much older than the television show; the new OED entry traces the phrase back to 1959. Don’t give us the silent treatment though: this phrase is over 100 years old.

The new release also sees the addition of not one but two entries for flash mob. One is the contemporary sense, dating from 2003, which refers to a group of people who assemble in public to perform a pre-arranged action together and then quickly disperse (perhaps dad dancing – another new entry which dates from 1996). The other type of flash mob dates from the nineteenth century and refers to a very different type of group: one consisting of thieves, confidence tricksters, or other petty criminals.

What else is new?

Here is a small selection of words and subentries which have been added (or which have had new senses added) to the OED Online in this update. For full definitions, you can follow these links, which have been made freely accessible for 30 days.

big data (noun)
cludgie (noun)
epic (adj) (in the sense ‘particularly impressive or remarkable’)
fascinator (noun) (in the sense of a woman’s headpiece)
handyman special (noun)
metabolic syndrome (noun)
sega (noun)

You can read more about the June OED update in an article by Chief Editor John Simpson, or about the OED’s comprehensive revision programme, of which the June update is a part, with every word in the Dictionary scheduled for review to improve accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and historical and contemporary quotations. Currently 41.2% of database entries are new or revised, and central headwords in June’s batch of revised entries include hand, head, and heart.