New words notes March 2016

By Jonathan Dent, Senior Assistant Editor of the OED

This March’s update to finds us—as ever—with neologisms and newly researched and published entries for words and phrases from the whole history of the English language coming at us from all sides. With ranges including brother, call, celebrity, difference, father, foot, get, luck, and video, there’s a lot to choose from, so let’s dive straight in.

Beginning with some of the newest coinages in this update, revision of video invites you to explore the (still very recent) history of the video blog or vlog (both 2002), and of the world of vlogging (2003) and vloggers (2004), while connoisseurs of vintage video and computer games can return to the golden age of the 1980s and 1990s with new entries for side-scrolling and side-scroller. At the other end of the chronological scale, a new entry for any mo (an archaic equivalent to any more) finds its first evidence in an Old English translation of the History of Orosius, produced for Alfred the Great in the ninth century.

Additions to another venerable range of words, call, reveal that the Islamic adhan was first referred to in English as the call to prayer(s) in the early eighteenth century; that the first recorded witness described as being called into court to give evidence did so in 1460, according to the register of Oxford’s Oseney Abbey for that year; and that those in need of help have only been calling in a favour from those for whom they’ve done a good turn in the past since the 1970s.

In the midst of this most fiercely contested US presidential election campaign, it’s worth noting that people have been describing such contests as too close to call since the 1930s (the phrase probably originally referred to the calling of odds by a bookmaker). Other additions pertinent to the race to the White House include to get out the vote (or voters), gotcha journalism and gotcha politics (the aim of which is to catch a politician or other public figure in the very act of putting their foot in their mouth, or in committing some other kind of epic fail), and (nuclear) football—the name given to the briefcase which travels with the entourage of the US President, and which can be used to authorize a nuclear attack at any time, and from any location (first recorded in 1965).

A world of new words

Looking beyond the UK and US, there’s also an (almost complete) alphabet of newly added terms from World English to explore, from ang moh (a Singapore English term for a light-skinned person, especially one of European origin—literally in Hokkien Chinese ‘(a person with) red hair’) to yum cha (a Chinese meal, usually of dim sum and tea, eaten in the morning or early afternoon). Other words from around the world include: Dad and Dave, the archetypal Australian settler-farmers of yesteryear, the types of rural unsophistication and the butt of many jokes; guanxi—in Chinese contexts, a social or personal network of contacts used for professional or other advantage; killer litter, a scourge of Singapore’s streets, where objects thrown or falling from the windows and balconies of high-rise apartments pose a significant threat to those below; leggo, a type of rhythmically powerful calypso originating in Trinidad and traditionally sung at carnival time (perhaps so called because someone performing the song ‘lets go’ and sings it without restraint); and wah, an expression of surprise, admiration, or delight, used in Indian and Singapore English and boasting a complex etymology possibly involving Urdu, Persian, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Malay etymons.

Red carpet news

Revised entries for celebrity and celeb put our celeb-obsessed celebrity culture (first mentioned as such in the New York Times in 1951) under the linguistic microscope, with the post-talkies 1930s emerging as a crucial forcing ground for compounds such as celebrity endorsement (1930), celebrity guest, celebrity magazine, and celebrity-studded. The first so-called celebrity chef, we learn, came along in 1941, although the name Charles O. Burleigh was never one to conjure with—as the head chef of Western Airlines, Burleigh was a chef who cooked for celebrities, rather than a personality in his own right. He cooked, we are told, for ‘many notables, such as Will Rogers, many times’. Not impressed? Well, further celebrity gossip is available in the revised entry for side, where it is revealed that ‘side boob’ has been on show (one way or another) since 1994, when Mike Myers used the phrase in an interview with the Sunday Times, more than ten years before it was popularized by Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin and by the so-called ‘sidebar of shame’ of the MailOnline.

Football crazy

Revision of the foot range of words means that the linguistic history of all the various games around the world which are—or have been—known as football can be explored in depth. OED‘s first reference to this ancient sport in English dates from a London proclamation of 1409, but it took a while to take off, and our revised entry contains around thirty new compounds detailing its emergence as a major cultural force in the nineteenth century. Formal competitive football (along with rugby football, with which it is in the period often synonymous) was popularized in its various forms by the English public schools (the earliest quotation for football tournament in 1867 and our first evidence for football news in 1863 refer to events at Eton and Rugby) and spread within the British Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century (football team andfootball shirt are first recorded in Melbourne newspapers in 1861 and 1871 respectively, while football kit is first mentioned—alongside similar equipment for polo—by the Times of India in 1877). In the UK, ‘association football’, or soccer, was codified by the original Football Association in 1863, around the time that its American namesake was also being developed, and our earliest evidence for football coach and football stadium comes from US sources. The specific character of Australian rules football is reflected in football oval (in use from 1877). Given the sudden efflorescence of interest in, and enthusiasm for, the beautiful game and its namesakes in the decades after 1860, it’s not surprising to find the London Graphic remarking in 1871 that ‘a large proportion of the male community is evidently football mad‘.

Elsewhere in this update, additions and modifications to the OED entry for five-a-side in this update reveal that, while the first ‘five-a-side football contest’ was reported in the Preston Chronicle of 1881, three years earlier the phrase had been used adverbially in a description of the earliest form of tennis to be played in England, while the first use of the phrase as a noun (meaning ‘five-a-side football’) came in 1883, when the Dundee Courier reported on ‘a new feature in football north of the Forth . . . a game of five-a-side’. For those of you for whom the word ‘football’ isn’t synonymous with a kickabout game, the existing entry for soccer also receives a midseason overhaul and some new squad members, in the form of entries dealing with soccer boots, soccer club, soccer jersey, soccer player, and soccer team, among others.

How’s your father?

Other entries revised and updated this quarter are the familial terms brother, dad, daughter, and father. This range reveals new facts about the history and development of the various colloquial and abbreviated forms for brother (bro, bra, bruh, bruv, bruvver, et al.), and shows that the first recorded bro-hug (a friendly embrace between two men) was offered as an expression of affection at the end of an Internet newsgroup message in 2001, while the phrase brother from another mother (a very close male friend) has been in use since 1989.

A new entry for the phrase how’s your father? traces its use as a nonsensical catchphrase to as far back as 1915, around the time that it was being popularized by music hall comedian Harry Tate. From there, our research follows its shifts in meaning and usage. In the second half of the twentieth century, the phrase began to be used as a noun, originally with the sense ‘nonsense’. Its later use as a euphemism for any word the speaker prefers not to specify (‘Jools said that she had actually seen her brother’s “how’s your father” quite often’, apparently), led in turn to a very specific (and very British) euphemism for sex, with humorist Alan Coren the first to record the leering phrase a bit of how’s your father, in 1968.

Get lucky and break a leg!

Revision of foot also gives us access to the history of a cluster of phrases about embarking on new activities or succeeding in new situations (to get one’s feet wet, to get a foot on the ladder, to get one’s feet under the table). Meanwhile, at leg, there’s a chance to explore the origins and history of the exhortation to break a leg; the earliest recorded reference to actorly superstition inducing one nervous thesp to wish another luck in this way dates from 1925. The entry for luck itself has received some careful attention, and has gained a number of new phrases, including several (knowing my luck, to have all the luck, more by luck than management, seven years’ bad luck) which reveal a surprisingly hapless and pessimistic facet of this fortuitous and optimistic word. Elsewhere in this range, we find the first reference to lucky charms in a sermon of 1700, where they are denounced as ‘the fond imaginations of a sickly brain’; we stumble upon the earliest mention of a lucky shamrock (1880), and we come into lucky money (now frequently in reference to Chinese leih sih—money given as a gift in a red envelope). Anyone hoping to get lucky will find that this has been a linguistic possibility since the 1880s (in a general sense), and has been a euphemism for finding a sexual partner since the 1960s.

You can read about a very specific embodiment of good fortune in Associate Editor Eleanor Maier’s article on the ‘Luck of Eden Hall’ and similar family heirlooms.

Which came first: ‘Dad’s Army’, or Dad’s Army?

If your first reaction upon seeing this question was to shout (hopefully only to yourself) ‘Don’t tell him, Pike!’, you’re probably enough of an aficionado to know that classic British sitcom Dad’s Army began life under a different title. The much loved comedy series, which ran for nine series between 1968 and 1977 and detailed the mishaps and occasional triumphs of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon during World War II, was originally given the title The Fighting Tigers by its creator, Jimmy Perry. It was the BBC‘s then head of comedy Michael Mills who imposed the new title on Perry and his co-writer David Croft during pre-production. Why ‘Dad’s Army’? Because, we’re usually told, the phrase was a wartime nickname for the Home Guard, whose ranks were typically made up of the fathers (and younger brothers) of those on active service in the regular armed forces. However, a new OED entry for Dad’s Army reveals that there is no mention of the phrase before 1968, in references to Croft and Perry’s show, and that the OED‘s researchers and editors have not found any evidence for the idea that this was ever a popular nickname for the local defence force founded in 1940.

Despite this, within two years of the broadcast of the first episode in July 1968, the words ‘Dad’s Army’ had become synonymous with ‘the Home Guard’ to the extent that Conservative plans for the expansion of the Territorial Army in 1970 could be dismissed by the Socialist Commentary as a ‘resurrected Dad’s Army’. In the years that followed, the boundary between history and fiction continued to be blurred, until even a Home Guard veteran, Tony Benn, could describe himself as having ‘joined Dad’s Army’ when he was 16. Further senses at the new entry show that, at the same time that ‘Dad’s Army’ was establishing its reputation as an ‘authentic’ wartime nickname for the Home Guard, the phrase was being extended to other ad hoc or inexperienced military forces, superannuated football squads and politicians, and any body of (elderly) volunteers. The Walmington-on-Sea platoon has, for once, achieved its objective and won the (linguistic) exercise. Panic over.

That’s it for this quarter—we’ll be back, hoping to make a difference to the linguistic landscape with more revisions, additions, and antedatings, in three months’ time, with a little bit of luck.