One hundred years of Roald Dahl: an Oxford English Dictionary update
It’s time for another quarterly update to the OED, and we have more than 1,000 revised and updated entries including 1,200 new senses for you to explore, as well as an anniversary to celebrate.
This month marks the centenary of the birth of author, screenwriter (and sometime fighter pilot) Roald Dahl, and to mark this occasion and the publication of Oxford’s Roald Dahl Dictionary, September’s quarterly update to the OED contains a range of revised and newly drafted entries connected to Dahl and his writing. You can also find out more about Dahl’s language from the perspective of Susan Rennie, Chief Editor of the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary.
Splendiferous, scrumptious words
Revised entries in this range include those for words which many of us encountered for the first time in his books for children (such as the adjectives frightsome, scrummy, scumptious, and splendiferous, and splendiferousness). The entry for gremlin has received careful attention from the OED‘s researchers, editors, and etymologists, none of whom (following the instructions in Joe Dante’s 1984 film about a very specific later incarnation of these creations) got the entry wet, exposed it to bright light, or added any quotations to it after midnight. The Gremlins, published in 1943, was Dahl’s first children’s book, and he sometimes claimed to have invented this name for meddlesome imps imagined as a cause of technical and other problems for aeroplanes. Our newly revised entry traces the origins of this mysterious word back to 1929 and its use as RAF slang to mean ‘a lowly or despised person; a menial, a dogsbody, a wretch’, while our earliest evidence for use referring to the destructive sprites so feared by Second World War pilots dates from 1938.
Another word with a significant pre-Dahl history is scrumptious, originally an East Anglian dialect word meaning ‘mean, stingy’ (first recorded in 1823), which seems to have been carried to the United States by English settlers. The word developed in American usage to mean ‘small’, and also ‘fastidious, scrupulous’, which became ‘stylish, smart’, and eventually the familiar ‘excellent, marvellous; (of food) very enjoyable, delicious; (of a person) very attractive’, following a semantic development similar to that of the word ‘nice’.
This update also includes brand new entries and senses for a range of vocabulary best described as Dahlesque—an adjective which makes its first appearance in OED today with a first quotation from 1983 in which a collection of stories is praised for its ‘Dahlesque delight in the bizarre’. These new additions provide Dahl fans with a golden ticket to the first uses and historical development of words like scrumdiddlyumptious, for those occasions when scrumptious simply won’t do (or at all times if you happen to be The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders), and the human bean, which is not a vegetable, although—according to the Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant—it comes in ‘dillions of different flavours’. A new sub-entry for golden ticket itself reveals that (long before Charlie Bucket found his own in the wrapper of a Wonka Whipple-Scrumptious Fudge Mallow Delight) the first such ticket was granted to the painter and engraver William Hogarth. Hogarth’s ticket granted the bearer and five companions perpetual free admission to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall, in return for paintings carried out for the gardens by the artist.
Oompa Loompas and witching hours
Although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory itself first appeared in print in 1964, the Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka’s diminutive (and musical) workers, became fixed in the popular imagination as green-haired and orange-skinned thanks to the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl’s book. Ever since the release of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, while a person may be likened to an Oompa Loompa in stature or industriousness, such comparisons are now much more likely to allude to the Day-Glo effects of some fake tanning products.
The witching hour, the ‘special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up [is] in a deep deep sleep’, and when the BFG and his bloodthirsty cousins wander abroad, was first mentioned in 1762, in a poem by Elizabeth Carter Keene (now all-but forgotten, and dismissed by one twentieth-century critic as ‘a vapid bungler’), where it is a clear reference to—or misremembering of—Hamlet’s ‘the very witching time of night, When Churchyards yawne, and hell it selfe breakes out Contagion to this world’. In the 1980s (shortly after its memorable appearance in the BFG) the phrase gained a new financial sense, when traders began to refer to the last hour of trading every month—when exchange-traded stock options expire, and the market is particularly volatile—as ‘the witching hour’. Thankfully, other horrors created by Dahl including snozzcumbers, the cannibalistic Bloodbottler, and the ferocious Vermicious Knid remain confined to the Dahl universe . . . for now . . .
From toilets to YOLO: other OED additions
This quarter’s update strays into other fictional worlds and beams down a new entry for the science-fiction sense of transporter (along with the fuller matter transporter and the abbreviated transmat). In case you’re caught short and need to know the geography of the house, we’ve revised a batch of words for lavatory, from the medieval gong and wardrobe to the chemical Elsan, the euphemistic bathroom, and the Australian dunny, biffy, and toot.
New entries have also been added for words such as gender-fluid (first recorded in 1987), the name of the synthesized, superheavy element livermorium (a lexical baby from 2012), ‘Merica (a truncated form of ‘America’, now often used ironically or self-consciously draw attention to emblematic or stereotypical American ideals, institutions, or traditions), and British political buzzword Westminster bubble (first used in the Birmingham Post in 1998).
Elsewhere, those embarrassing male appendages moobs first heave into view in 2001, and the acronym YOLO (1996) is traced back to its antecedent, the axiomatic you only live once (first used in a nineteenth-century English translation of Balzac’s French ‘on ne vit qu’un fois’ in his Le Cousin Pons). One of many variant spellings of biatch is first recorded in lyrics by hip-hop artist Too Short from 1986, while squee! was first used to represent any high-pitched squealing sound in 1865, and to express excitement or delight from 1998. The histories of the related words slackivism, slacktivist, clicktivism, and clicktivist, are also explored in this update.
We’ll be back in December with more new words and revised entries. Any chance that we won’t have interesting things to say about them? Fuhgeddaboudit!