From First World problems to last calls: notes on the OED update
Katherine Connor Martin, Head of US Dictionaries, takes a closer look some of the new additions in this quarter’s update to the OED.
Today’s quarterly update is devoted to the revision of several core words in the vocabulary of English, including high and low, fact, case, day, week, group, and company. The new versions of the entries show how the use of these common words has changed and evolved since the original OED entries were published as much as a century ago. Most of the approximately 600 new words, phrases, and senses added today are related to these core entries, many of which were augmented with dozens of new compounds and phrases. Below are a few that our editors found to be particularly noteworthy:
Group of death
When the draw for this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil was announced, the indignant reactions in both England (grouped with Uruguay, Italy, and Costa Rica) and the United States (grouped with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana) made it clear that the term group of death is firmly established in English usage to refer to the most challenging or competitive group in the group round of a tournament. However, the term originated in Spanish as grupo de la muerte, first used in the Mexico-hosted 1970 World Cup. The earliest known English evidence came 16 years later, when the tournament was once again held in Mexico. That tournament’s group of death was said to be Group E, which comprised Uruguay, West Germany, Scotland, and Denmark.
The verb high-centre describes the action of causing a vehicle’s chassis to become stuck on a bump or obstacle in such a way that the wheels are raised off the ground and spin uselessly, unable to gain traction. The ‘high centre’ was originally the raised middle of a deeply rutted dirt road. By the early 20th century in the United States, the problem posed to the increasingly popular automobile by such high-centred roads was sufficiently notorious that a 1905 paean to the Rambler (one of the first mass-produced cars) touted its high clearance ‘in the center, just where you need every inch to get over high centers and stones’. It wasn’t until the 1940s that high-centre became a verb, and in verbal use, the predicament of being stranded doesn’t necessarily need to involve a rutted road. Drivers have ‘high-centred’ their cars on a wide array of obstacles, including railroad tracks, stumps, and even snow.
The first First World problems were genuine problems. First attested in 1979, the term was initially used simply to refer to problems associated with the major countries of the developed world. However, by the late 1990s, a new strand of ironic usage had emerged; a First World problem came to be specifically a minor frustration regarded as arising out of economic and social privilege, as implicitly contrasted with the more serious problems faced by people in the developing world. For instance, a 1999 article in the South China Morning Post, noting complaints over ‘distastefully dressed’ security guards, remarked ‘Ah, First World Problems.’ More recently, this usage has become a fixture in the language of social media, where it is often wielded in hashtag form to indicate the poster’s self-awareness of the triviality of his or her complaints. The final citation in the OED’s new entry for First World problem is from a 2009 Twitter post: “My ergonomic mouse is too sensitive! #firstworldproblems.”
The word workaround has entered general English usage to refer to a makeshift method of overcoming or bypassing a problem, but until recently it was limited primarily to technical contexts. First attested in 1961, for its first two decades it was used primarily in aerospace jargon. For instance, in 1965, the Oakland Tribune reported that ‘Project Apollo executives are trying short-cuts, improvisations and ‘work-arounds’ to keep the moon schedule from slipping out of the ’60s and into the ’70s’ (12 Sept.). By the 1980s, the term had also been adopted by the computing industry to refer to a method of overcoming a performance issue or limitation in a program. Adoption of the workaround in nontechnical contexts is a relatively recent development.
Dayclean is a synonym of dawn, or day-break. The OED’s entry for the term bears an unusual regional label: U.S. regional (chiefly South Carolina), Caribbean, and West African. The term likely originated as a calque literally translating an expression in a West African language. Through forced migration of African slaves, it made its way to the Caribbean and to the United States, where dayclean is used primarily by speakers of Gullah, the creole language of the South Carolina and Georgia lowcountry and Sea Islands.
Literally speaking, high doh is the eighth note of the scale in the tonic sol-fa system of musical notation used to teach sight-singing in the 19th century. The sol-fa system no longer enjoys the popularity it once had, but high doh lives on in figurative use in Scottish and Irish English, in the phrases up to high doh and at high doh, denoting a state of extreme agitation or nervous excitement: ‘The children have been at high-doh all week waiting for their daddy’ (1998 Irish Times 9 Mar.).
British pubs have last orders, North American bars have last call—the notice to patrons that closing time is nigh, and any orders for further drinks should be placed immediately. Last call is attested in this meaning from 1935, but OED also records a much earlier and very different sense; in Christian theology, the last call is a summons given on the day of the Last Judgement, exhorting sinners to repent. Those who heed the secular last call typically don’t repent until the following day.
Today sees the September update of the Oxford English Dictionary. More than 600 new words, phrases, and senses have entered the OED today, including fact check, workaround, and First World problem. Read our release notes to find out more about the update.