Beyond the dictionary: the stories behind some of Oxford’s latest additions
The word cray, shortened for crazy, seems to have arisen in the early 2000s. It originally appeared in the reduplicated form cray cray, which appeared on Urban Dictionary as early as 2002. By the end of the decade, cray cray had been widely adopted in the language of the American blogosphere, as in this 2007 example from the blog Chicagoist: “Congrats, Ty Ty, you’re officially the epitome of cray cray” (25 Oct.).
In a development reminiscent of the history of bling (originally bling bling), what began as a double-barreled slang term ultimately became more widely adopted in a more concise, single-syllable form. For cray, the breakout moment was in 2011, when the word was memorably uttered by Kanye West in the hook to a track on Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne: “that shit cray.”
West’s famous line, which catapulted cray into the popular consciousness, omits the word “is” which would typically be used in a statement like this between the noun and the adjective describing it. This feature, called “zero copula” or “copula deletion”, is one of the most recognized characteristics of the variety of English known as AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). The entire phrase “that shit cray”, along with its more family-friendly variant “that ish cray” (using a euphemistic slang substitution for the scatological term), have now been adopted widely in general colloquial usage in the United States, even among speakers who wouldn’t ordinarily omit the verb “to be” in this context. Accordingly, shit and ish are among the words appearing most often with cray in Oxford’s corpus.
In the past few years, electronic devices which enable people to inhale smokeless nicotine vapor have become increasingly widespread, adopted both to circumvent smoking bans and as an alternative perceived as less unhealthy than conventional cigarettes. A gap emerged in the lexicon, as a word was needed to describe this activity, and distinguish it from “smoking”. The word vaping (derived from vapor/vapour) arose to fill this gap, and it has proliferated along with the habit. Frequency in Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus shows a sixfold increase in usage of the term over the course of the year 2013.
E-cigarettes were not commercially available until the 21st century, so it is counterintuitive that the word vape dates to the early 1980s. Its earliest known use is in an article, “Why do People Smoke” in New Society in 1983. The author, Rob Stepney, described a hypothetical device being explored at the time, “an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but…delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)” Thus, it seems that vaping the word existed before vaping the phenomenon.
For more than a century, the terms in vitro (from Latin, literally ‘in glass’) and in vivo (literally ‘in life’) have been used in opposition to one another, distinguishing experiments and processes occurring under artificial conditions (in a test tube, petri dish, etc.) from those taking place naturally within living organisms. In the digital age, another type of distinction has emerged, with scientific research being conducted in the virtual realm, through computer modeling or simulation. Such explorations are sometimes described as taking place “in silico”.
Building on the pattern of in vitro and in vivo, in silico is Latin for “in silicon”, with reference to the use of silicon chips in computer systems. Abundant and inexpensive, silicon has long been the semiconductor of choice for manufacturing computer chips. The element is so closely associated with computing that it has become a metonym for the tech industry as a whole in terms like “Silicon Valley”. The potential of alternative semiconductors, such as Gallium arsenide is being explored by scientists, but for the time being silicon’s status seems secure.
The verb cotch, meaning ‘spend time relaxing’ or ‘hang out,’ is relatively new in British English, but its roots stretch back to the 19th century in Jamaica. One feature associated with Jamaican English is a tendency to drop “s” at the beginning of words, and so the word scotch in the sense ‘to wedge someone or something somewhere’ became cotch.
The historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records cotch being used in Jamaica as early as 1895, meaning ‘to rest oneself’ or ‘to lean on something for support’. By the mid-20th century, Jamaicans were also using the word to mean ‘to stay or sleep somewhere temporarily’. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the word began to make a splash in British English in its newer ‘hanging out’ sense, appearing in the Sunday Times in an article decrying the impenetrable slang of British youth at the turn of the millennium:
Our children speak in alien tongues. “Whazzup” they say or “phat.” They find things “minging” or “mint”. They abhor “dobbing” but applaud all that is “wicked.” “Safe” is good, as is “heavy,” and they like nothing better than “bopping” down the street or “cotching” in the high street.
Sunday Times 5 Aug., 2001
More than a decade on, cotch still regularly crops up in newspaper articles as an example of baffling youth slang, but it has begun to appear in edited publications without comment or definition as well. After all, by the time the kids’ slang has been around for 13 years or more, they aren’t kids any longer—and some of them have grown up to become writers.
The word acquihire can be used as both a noun and a verb, and refers to the practice, prevalent in today’s tech industry, of buying a company primarily for the value of its staff, rather than for the value of its products or business. As Ben Zimmer has noted, aquihire is one of the rare words whose moment of coinage is well documented; Rex Hammock first used it in a blog post in 2005, as a blend of “acquire” and “hire,” and has actively promoted it since. However, Hammock’s spelling of the word was not aquihire but acqhire.
The two-syllable acqhire makes a nice written blend, but its pronunciation presents a problem: in order to distinguish it phonetically from acquire, one must pronounce the first syllable “ack-”, which in turn obscures the origins of its constituent parts. Accordingly, the alternative, three-syllable form acquihire has emerged, with the first two syllables pronounced more like acquisition than acquire. Oxford’s corpus evidence shows that the acquihire spelling is almost three times as common as the original, so that is the one we’ve given as the primary form in Oxford Dictionaries.
Source: Oxford New Monitor Corpus
Acqhire is also covered in the entry, presented as an alternative spelling. Perhaps, like the perennially contentious matter of the pronunciation of GIF the primacy (or not) of the coiner’s intention will remain a topic of debate.