Balderdash and Piffle

By John Simpson, Chief Editor, OED

It was several years ago that Takeaway Media approached the OED with the idea of making a series about words for BBC2. Word programmes are notoriously tricky to make for television (rather than radio), as the fluidity and interconnections of language are difficult to portray on the screen in a way that captures the viewer’s imagination

But with ‘Balderdash and Piffle’ the Takeaway directors, Archie Baron and Neil Cameron, hit on the idea of giving the general public the opportunity to ‘change the Dictionary’ by tracking down earlier usages and etymological information which the OED had, for one reason or another, previously overlooked. Now the general public has not been uninvolved with the compilation of the OED, as anyone will know who has read Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, or thrilled to the beat of Simon Winchester’s bodice-rippers about the OED. In fact, the general public (or the ‘GP’, as the Fowlers familiarly called their worldwide helpers) has always been central to the OED. But here was a chance to reach an audience of millions with some of the real conundrums of modern-day lexicography.

Once we had heard last autumn that BBC2 had decided to commission the programme, the OED and Takeaway Media set to work in earnest. Phase One required that we draw up a search-list—a list of fifty words with which we knew we needed help. The words finally chosen were typically informal, twentieth-century expressions, probably coined within living memory (such as bog-standard, nit nurse, and something for the weekend) but difficult for the OED‘s researchers to track down in the regular sources. In addition, Takeaway threw in one or two well-known posers (cool, gay), on the off-chance that television might bring the problem to the notice of someone who had the answer, but didn’t realize that the question had set generations of lexicographers scratching their heads.

The list was finalized and loaded on to the OED Online site. At the same time Archie Baron and I paraded around numerous radio and TV studios plugging what was now known as ‘The Wordhunt’. With widespread publicity such as this it wasn’t surprising that the programme started to receive emails from all and sundry, contributing nuggets of information about our fifty words.

As plans for filming the results of the Wordhunt developed, it became clear that the programmes (six in all) would consist of short films, fronted by well-known figures led by series presenter Victoria Coren, following the trail of discovery for a number of words. After each word had been investigated, the findings would be brought by Victoria back to Oxford and cast before the OED‘s ‘panel of experts’ (Tania Styles, Peter Gilliver, and myself). When this had been done, our duty was to weigh up the new evidence and to judge whether it was acceptable and valid for the OED. Sometimes it was, and sometimes (often to the programme-makers’ dismay) it was deemed invalid.

As soon as each programme was aired, viewers were able to visit the BBC’s ‘Balderdash and Piffle’ web site and to see how the programme’s findings had ‘changed’ the OED. In the background were Yvonne Warburton and Jane Windebank from the OED‘s online group, who prepared screen-shots of the changes for public consumption, as the actual changes themselves would not be accessible on the OED Online until the next regular site update several weeks later, in March 2006.

So what were the results of the Wordhunt, and how did they change the OED? First of all, it’s worth noting that very few of them came from regularly published books, a staple of the OED‘s reading programmes over the last one hundred and sixty years. Those offerings that came from classic literature often proved to be false leads. Take, for example, the search for earlier usages of ‘cool’ in the modern sense of approval. A number of wordhunters sent in the same passages from Victorian literature. Particular favourites were:

‘No other house can receive her with propriety but yours. I invite you to open it.’
‘Cool. Here is a matrimonial hailstorm pouring.’

from Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White (1868), and:

‘I try the rocks, and I think it cool

That they laugh with such an excess of glee,

As I heavily slip into every pool

That skirts the cold cold Sea.’

from Lewis Carroll’s Sea Dirge.

In both of these cases a cursory reading may suggest, to modern ears, the sense ‘admirable, sophisticated, excellent’, but a closer reading shows that this cannot be the case, and that (as with most false leads for ‘cool’) the required sense is probably OED‘s sense 6 ‘calmly and deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal or demand’ or one of the other senses known to have been in use in the mid nineteenth century. There was, in fact, a tendency for some Wordhunters to impose a modern interpretation on an older use.

Nevertheless, there was success with ‘cool’, from the African-American context from which we believed the word to have originated in this sense, with a Wordhunter providing an early use (1933) from the writings of Zora Hurston. And then in a seventh programme, made as a result of the mass of new findings sent in after the first set of six programmes were broadcast, a further example from a song of 1902, leading us to uncover an even earlier glossarial usage from 1884, again from a text addressing African-American usage. So that was a spectacular result.

Printed sources provided further antedatings. Now! magazine predated the OED‘s first use of ‘chattering classes’ from 1985 to 1980; Fritz Spiegel’s ABZ of Scouse (1966) presented a short antedating of ‘made-up’ in the sense ‘happy’; the Economic Journal of 1952 turned up a substantial antedating of the phrase ‘back to square one’ and bolstered credence of the fact that it derives from the game of Snakes and Ladders.

The Economic Journal reference hinted at new ways in which Wordhunters were accessing their information. When the OED edited its entry for back to square one in the 1990s we didn’t have access to the range of historical databases that are nowadays available. We might well have picked up the 1952 reference ourselves when we revised the entry, though that would have been at some time in the next few years. But Wordhunters were alert to the possibilities of the Internet, and the returns were rich: bomber jacket was taken back to 1940 from an American newspaper (now available online), and smart casual, snazzy, and pass the parcel were antedated in similar fashion. The options here are endless.

Some of the most interesting antedatings came from sources which relied on personal memory, often of old television and radio scripts, or gramophone records. These are sources which the OED can and does cite, but which are much less readily accessible to our researchers than regular printed texts. So someone with an unnecessarily fond memory of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ found us mushy peas in a script from 1973; ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ turned up codswallop from the 1950s; a ‘Likely Lads’ script supplied on the pull from 1975, with a Monty Python record (helpfully called ‘Monty Python’s Previous Record’) offering something for the weekend from 1972. Eventually someone remembered hearing Ringo Starr saying that John and George were ‘made up’ in an interview in 1975, and that too was validated for the OED from the ITN archives.

A final category of productive sources was paper archives themselves, whether stored in a museum or record office, or stashed away in someone’s home (and validated for date). The story of how ploughman’s lunch was antedated to 1970 in a memorandum of a meeting held at the Milk Marketing Board and stored at the National Archives deserves a programme to itself, as does the exploration of the origin of the 99 ice-cream.

Each of these findings tells us something more about the English language in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than we knew before, and highlights the multiplicity of media in which the records of our language reside. Furthermore it brings into sharp focus the fact that compiling a dictionary of record such as the OED must rely not just on the skills of the lexicographers themselves, but on the wealth of information that only collaboration with the widest public can bring. I’d like to end by thanking both the programme-makers, Takeaway Media, and all of the Wordhunters who took part in the Wordhunt for their intrepid detective work and their remarkable findings, from which both the OED and all of its users worldwide benefit.