New words notes

Over 900 new words, phrases, and senses enter the Oxford English Dictionary in this update. Many appear in entries fully updated for the first time since the OED’s original edition. Some words, like book, death, and honey, have now been expanded by dozens of new items. The following are notes on just a few of the items appearing in the dictionary for the first time today:

The phrase mobile phone was added to the OED in 2001, and the entry for mobile was revised the following year. In the intervening decade, a multiplicity of new electronic computing and telecommunications devices has emerged, and the pockets and handbags of English-speakers around the world now hold an ever-expanding array of media players, smartphones, e-readers, portable game consoles, and tablets. A need emerged for a generic term to apply to this technological menagerie, and the phrase mobile device has fulfilled it, skyrocketing in use in recent years and taking on a specific meaning, denoting any mobile phone or portable computing device.

The phrase dead white male (abbreviated DWM), has been used since the mid-1980s as a term of disparagement for male authors and academics of European ancestry whose pre-eminence, especially in academic study, is challenged as being disproportionate to their cultural significance, and attributed to a historical bias in favour of their gender and ethnicity.

Wackadoo and wackadoodle are elaborations of wacky, wack, or wacko, used to refer to people regarded as eccentric. The silliness of the words themselves contributes to their mildly contemptuous effect. Similar-sounding nonsense words were used as refrains in popular songs like Doo Wacka Doo in the early 20th century, but it isn’t certain that these directly impacted the later development of wackadoo and wackadoodle, which didn’t become common until the end of the century.

The phrase crap shoot arose in American English in the late 19th century to refer to a game of dice (or ‘craps’). Nowadays, that original use is relatively rare, but the term has become very common in a figurative use, denoting a situation or undertaking regarded as uncertain, risky, or unpredictable.

The word empath originated in the context of science fiction in the 1950s, where it was used to refer to a person or being with the paranormal ability to perceive or share the feelings or emotional state of another. It has now also taken on a more general meaning, denoting a person who can understand and appreciate another’s feelings, emotions (but within the normal range of human ability).

A chance to do something again after an unsatisfactory first attempt can be called a do-over. The word is attested in that sense from 1912, but when researching the entry, OED editors were surprised to discover an earlier, much more obscure meaning: from as early as 1890, the word do-over was used in the food processing industry to refer to a defectively sealed tin (typically of salmon).

The word herogram is recorded from at least 1972, referring to a message expressing praise, encouragement, or congratulations—especially one from an editor to a journalist. The -gram ending comes from the word telegram, and herogram may have been influenced by the earlier nastygram which was originally used (as the name suggests) to denote a message of the opposite type—a reprimand.

Another piece of journalists’ jargon that enters the OED in this update is the term tick-tock. Alluding to the characteristic sound of a clock, a tick-tock is a work of journalism which presents a detailed chronology of events.

In American elections, voters usually vote for numerous offices, ranging from the local school board to the President of the United States, at the same time and on the same ballot. Ballots are consequently very long, but the various electoral races tend to be placed in descending order from national, to state, to local. This arrangement has given rise to the adjective down-ballot, which is used to describe the less prominent contested offices listed nearer the bottom of the ballot.

Katherine Connor Martin
Head of US dictionaries