A heads up for the June 2013 OED release
The shorter a word is, generally speaking, the more complex it is lexicographically. Short words are likely to be of Germanic origin, and so to derive from the earliest bedrock of English words; they have probably survived long enough in the language to spawn many new sub-senses; they are almost certain to have generated many fixed compounds and phrases often taking the word into undreamt-of semantic areas; and last but not least they have typically formed the basis of secondary derivative words which in turn develop a life of their own.
All of these conditions apply to the three central words in the current batch of revised entries: hand, head, and heart. Each one of these dates in English from the earliest times and forms part of a bridge back to the Germanic inheritance of English. The revised and updated range contains 2,875 defined items, supported by 22,116 illustrative quotations.
Head is a good example. The first sign that it is a multi-faceted term comes with the number of different spellings the word has donned over the centuries: 219 different variant forms, with the largest percentage stemming from the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500 AD).
Head and its meanings
The basic meaning is “the uppermost part of the body of a human..typically separated from the rest of the body by a more or less distinct neck, and containing the brain, mouth, eyes, nose, and ears” – one of the meanings known to the Anglo-Saxons. But animals (including birds and fishes) have heads too, so we need to make sure this is highlighted. Again, the meaning goes right back to the Old English, Anglo-Saxon period.
Once the physical head has been dealt with, we have all of those aspects of the head which have accrued over the centuries. It’s “the centre of mental activity” – sometimes “contrasted with heart as the seat of the emotions” and with “hands, representing manual labour”. But the mental ability forms the basis of new meanings. If you have a head for business you’ve got a natural aptitude for it (1642 onwards in similar contexts). That’s not quite the same as having a good head for strong drink (late seventeenth century); or even a head for heights (not till 1850).
Once a word is established, it can develop any number of secondary meanings. In the Anglo-Saxon period it was possible to use head to mean a representation of a head (in a painting, for example). If we jump ahead to the seventeenth century again, we find it used of “the side of a coin which bears the head”. The entry itself shows 126 different meanings of the word in all sorts of contexts: “an accumulation of foam or froth on the top of certain drinks, esp. beer”, “a headline in a newspaper”; “a headmaster or headmistress”; “a promontory, a headland, a cape”; “a tidal bore”; and so on.
Head and its phrases
With head we remain in the big league as far as its phrases: the total roll-call is 112: to go over a person’s head is quite a recent one (1909 onwards, originally from the United States); to keep one’s head above water takes us right back to Shakespeare’s time (1608-); to bring (something) to a head crops up a hundred years before that, in 1566, in a description of how to treat a boil on a horse. It is not unusual for everyday terms like head to appear in traditional proverbs: two heads are better than one (1546 onwards), or better the head of a dog than the tail of a lion (1599 onwards, similar to being a big fish in a small pond) and great head, little wit (apparently still in use in regional America after five hundred and more years).
Head and its compounds
But the largest component of change for head comes with the compounds for which it forms the first element (over 200, including many presented in the OED as main entries in their own right): head bone (back to Old English), head clerk (1514 à), the now disused head bowler (in cricket, a bowler who bowls tactically: 1856 à), head cold (1848 à), head-doctor (1850 à, a psychiatrist), head gasket (1908 à), head girl (1801 à), etc. The attributive use in compounds sometimes leads to head being interpreted as an adjective (in a similar manner, for instance, to key, though we analyse key as being further down the road to adjectivehood).
New this quarter
Some notes on the new vocabulary in this batch come from a wide range of semantic regions, as usual. Scientific vocabulary (especially technology) forms a healthy chunk: big data, crowdsourcing, e-reader, mouseover, redirect (the noun), and stream (the verb). The OED Online’s use of mouseover predates our inclusion of the term in the dictionary:
to have a cow: this American slang term meaning, essentially ‘to have a fit’, is often associated with the character Bart from the animated series The Simpsons, but it is much older than the television show. The new OED entry traces the phrase back to 1959.
handyman special: this euphemistic North American term for something (especially a house) which is in need of repair and therefore available at a discounted price, enters the OED for the first time; earliest evidence from 1938.
metabolic syndrome: a cluster of biochemical and physiological abnormalities (including elevated levels of glucose and triglycerides in the blood, decreased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, hypertension, and abdominal obesity) associated with the development of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
sega: a dance form of the Mascarene Islands (originally and esp. Mauritius, Réunion, and the Seychelles), now typically involving rhythmic swaying and stepping motions. Also: the music associated with this, characterized by a strong, syncopated beat produced by a number of (traditional or modern) percussion instruments and often having lyrics sung in Creole.
wingsuit: a full-body garment having ‘wings’ formed by fabric between the arms and legs that inflates to give lift and enables the wearer to glide through the air when in free fall (typically landing with the aid of a parachute).
The noun and verb tweet (in the social-networking sense) has just been added to the OED. This breaks at least one OED rule, namely that a new word needs to be current for ten years before consideration for inclusion. But it seems to be catching on.
Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary