New words notes December 2014

By Jonathan Dent, Assistant Editor of the OED

G’day. It seems like the right moment to issue this greeting before moving on to general and selected individual introductions to this latest batch of new words, as this archetypal Australian and New Zealand greeting makes its appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time. The phrase good day has been in use as a salutation since the fourteenth century, but in Australasia, and especially in Australia itself, this greeting, particularly in its shortened form, has gained a special cultural resonance. Followed from its earliest recorded appearance in Australian English in the 1850s by the word mate, by the end of the nineteenth century good day had begun to contract into the abbreviated forms gooday and gidday. Our earliest evidence for the familiar form g’day comes from 1919 and the pages of an official magazine for New Zealanders returning from the First World War. Despite this, over the course of the twentieth century g’day became the standard friendly informal greeting of Australian life, acceptable even in some unexpected situations: when rugby player and law-enforcement legend Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell was introduced to the young Queen Elizabeth on her tour of Australia in 1954, ‘he met her . . . , and said, “G’Day your Majesty,” and she was absolutely fine with that.’

As well as good day and g’day, with this December update, the OED welcomes over 500 new words, phrases, and senses. Most of this new material adds to, and expands on, five ranges of existing entries that have been fully revised for the first time in 90 years or more. Joining an upbeat group centred on the positive adjectives good, better, best, and well are a large number of words beginning with either of the two prefixes in English which share the form un–. OED editors have also found room elsewhere among the Dictionary‘s 600,000 entries for other new words and senses which have in various ways managed to make their presence in the language felt. The entire update ranges from words first recorded in English over 1,000 years ago but making their first appearance in the OED, to new terms coined in the last six years.

Among the oldest newcomers are seler and selest, the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective sele (‘good’), and synonyms of better and best. The earliest surviving records of these two Old English words are found in manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry from the tenth century, but despite surviving into Middle English, both words had already been obsolete over a hundred years before Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales.

At the other end of the chronological scale is Bitcoin. While the status of Bitcoin as a ‘virtual currency’ remains disputed, the earliest reference to this digital payment system seems to be fairly easy to pin down, in a message to an electronic mailing list in 2008 which describes a ‘new electronic cash system’ which is ‘fully peer to peer, with no trusted third party’ handling payments between buyer and seller. Whether or not the name under which this message was sent, ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, is a pseudonym, and whether this name is being used by a single person or by a group, Nakamoto’s claim to have coined the word ‘Bitcoin’ seems relatively secure.

Other technology-related terms to develop in the past decade include BYOD, an initialism based on the convivial injunction to ‘BYOB’—bring your own bottle—adapted to provide a handy term for the practice of allowing or encouraging people to connect to your computer network if they ‘bring their own devices’.

Our revised entries for good, best, and better contain several proverbial phrases—the best things in life are free, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, and good fences make good neighbours (made famous by Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’)—which seem designed to help us make choices which will allow us to live a good (or at least a better) life. But what is the good life? Opinions differ. Originally it was an existence of luxury and of ease, filled with the finer things in life, in which pleasures came so freely and easily that one could say without a hint of sarcasm that ‘Dining without wine is like enduring a day without sunshine.’ It was the high life. For many British people, though, the phrase denotes not self-indulgence, but self-denial, and above all, self-sufficiency, conjuring up as it does the jauntily optimistic theme tune of the 1970s sitcom by Bob Larbey and John Esmonde in which Tom and Barbara Good struggled to live their own version of ‘The Good Life’ with their goat, chickens, and methane-burning generator in suburban Surbiton.

In the first half of the twentieth century, cholesterol, a fatty substance found in the tissues of all animals, gradually emerged as a person of interest in a scientific murder investigation. Researchers working on the causes of heart disease in humans, and especially on the hardening of the arteries of the heart which leads to heart attacks, named cholesterol as their prime suspect. In 1977, though, cholesterol was discovered to be living a Jekyll and Hyde existence with relation to human health. Of two types found in our bodies, one, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, was indeed found to be a cause of the clogging of arteries, but another type, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, actually helps to ‘clean’ the arterial walls, by transporting molecules of its LDL alter ego  to the liver to be broken down.  The Texas newspaper reporting these findings made matters clear for its readers: ‘there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.’ After years of trying to reduce the levels of any cholesterol in the blood, the aim has now become to reduce the bad, while actively increasing the good.

The good, the bad, and the ugly joins a small but formidable posse of film titles (including High Noon, Star Wars, and The Bucket List) which have escaped from movie posters and cinema marquees and into the popular imagination, carving a linguistic niche for themselves and earning a place in the OED. The Italian title for Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti Western, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo can be translated as The good one, the ugly one, the bad one, referring in turn to the characters played by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef. But, because of the tendency of English adjectives to combine with the to form collective nouns denoting people or things sharing a particular nature, the phrase is now chiefly used to denote all the good, bad, and downright unpleasant qualities that together make up the overall character of anything not seen as an unmixed blessing.

In 1956, a syndicated American newspaper column on ‘The Washington Scene’ reported a piece of military industrial gossip: ‘Scientists’, it said, ‘are now working on a new metal to be used in making the noses on intercontinental ballistics [sic] missiles. The metal is so hard to come by that the scientists have devised a lugubriously-humorous name for it. They call it “unobtainium”.’ Later in the fifties a magazine for the metal industry defined the chief characteristics of a substance which might be so called: it would have a high boiling point, be very strong but malleable, and would have a very low density. Such a metal, the magazine pointed out, ‘does not exist’. In later use—and aside from a small role as a plot McGuffin in the film Avatar—unobtainium is often a humorous byword for any ‘wonder material’ (such as titanium) used in high-end consumer goods with inflated price tags, or is said to be the main constituent of any item where demand has outstripped supply and left would-be early adopters searching for the latest must-have item in vain.

Perhaps the most unusual formation among the many new words beginning with the un– prefixes is un-PC. While politically correct and politically incorrect have been used in their familiar modern senses since the 1930s, the abbreviation PC is first recorded from the mid-1980s, with un-PC following hot on its heels in 1990, providing a (perhaps slightly weakened) alternative to politically incorrect, while neatly avoiding the inelegant, misleading, or non-standard formations un-politically correct or politically uncorrect.

And finally, some sporting news. The idea of a competition to see who can throw a high-topped rubber boot (in British English a ‘Wellington boot’ or ‘welly’) the furthest might have seemed like a passing novelty in 1975, when The Times reported on the welly throwing contest being held at a scout jamboree in Lillehammer, Norway, that year. The researches of OED editors, however, show that the British sport of welly wanging (which the Times’ report alleged was Australian in origin) is alive and well in the 2010s, with a local MP taking part in a Cornish welly wang in 2012, while an event held at a Birmingham school last year featured a welly throwing event (alongside spacehopper racing) in order to raise funds for charity. Well, I suppose if it’s for a good cause . . . pass the wellies—and may the best man or woman win!