New words notes March 2015

By Jonathan Dent, Assistant Editor of the OED

It’s that time again, when we bring you the very latest in additions to the Oxford English Dictionary, and, as usual, we have lexicographical facts and figures coming out of our ears. This quarterly OED update contains around 500 new words, phrases, and senses, spanning a period of nearly 1,100 years in the history of English, from the early tenth century (with a sense of the verb to have) to a specialist application of the term white water in environmental science first recorded in the year 2000. Most of these new items are additions to several ranges of fully revised entries published for the first time in the third edition of the OED, including the words area, early, have, large, late, look, and white.

Too much of the white stuff?

Certain parts of the United States have probably seen far too much of one of our latest additions over the past few weeks. The so-called ‘Siberian Express’ weather system brought record-breaking low temperatures to much of the eastern, southern, and mid-western U.S. in February, freezing Niagara Falls, turning the sea off Nantucket into slush, and burying entire cities under several feet of the white stuff. While the term ‘Siberian Express’ seems to have arrived in 1982, along with a similar spell of sub-arctic weather, the white stuff, originally a distinctively North American name for snow, has been in use since at least 1891. In April of that year a newspaper reported that a relatively measly (by last month’s standards) ‘eighteen inches of the white stuff lay on the ground, and in some places piled up in drifts several feet deep’, after one of the severest storms of the season managed to white out a large area of the Sierra Nevada.

Where the white (and other wild) things are

As whiteness is here seen as the chief defining characteristic of snow, it is fitting that the core sense of white, adj. in OED is defined as ‘of…the colour of milk or freshly fallen snow’. The frequency and distinctiveness of this lightest of all colours (strictly speaking, the lack of any distinctive hue, due to the equal reflection or emission of all visible colours of light) in the natural world ensures that the adjective white features in many English names given to living creatures and plants, and this update adds more than 30 such names. While some of these belong to species making their first appearance in OED, such as the white-eyed vireo, the (Honduran) white bat, or the white sturgeon (the largest freshwater fish found in North America), others, such as white goosefoot (better known in Britain by the name ‘fat-hen’) are alternative names for relatively well-known species.

These white animals and plants are joined by newcomers to other entries in the current update, and one of the oldest items in this New Words update is arrish-hen (literally ‘stubble-hen’), an Old English name for the common quail which hasn’t been used since around the time of the Norman Conquest. Other species helping to boost the biodiversity of OED in this update, and to make it an obvious candidate for classification as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty include the elegant and understated early purple orchid (or orchis), the grotesque ear fungus, and all the members of the family known as the earless seals. The large blue butterfly, a beautiful rarity making its OED debut, conceals a dark childhood secret: its caterpillars, after an initial period feeding on the flowers of wild thyme and marjoram, infiltrate the nests of red ants, imitating ant larvae in order to be fed, cuckoo-like, by the workers, and to feed on their supposed brothers and sisters within the nest.

The extra-large in search of the extremely small

We’ve grown used to the idea that scientific and technological progress makes devices, be they complex specialist instrumentation or mass-market computers and smartphones, smaller over time. But it seems that when searching for some of the smallest things in the universe, bigger is actually better. Following on from last year’s addition of hadron collider, this update includes a sub-entry for large hadron collider. Largeness is relative, but the particle accelerator most closely associated with this name certainly lives up to its publicity: the installation near Geneva operated since 2008 by CERN is the longest machine ever built, filling a ring of tunnels 27 kilometres long and which straddles the border between Switzerland and France. While hadron colliders of any size are newcomers to OED, the long-conjectured but elusive Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the discovery of which has been one of the main goals of megaprojects such as the CERN LHC (and which it tentatively identified in 2013) has had an entry in the OED since 1993. This month this monster of a machine will be restarted, operating at nearly double its previous energy, smashing particles together at 13 trillion electron volts in the quest to in the quest to discover evidence of different types of Higgs boson, and to unlock the mysteries of dark matter.

It remains to be seen if an extra large hadron collider will eventually supersede the common-or-garden or merely ‘large’ versions currently in use, and whether or not a future update might have to include the abbreviation XLHC, but until then, curious readers can explore the histories of both extra-large and XL in OED. The former is first found in a description of a strikingly large porcelain ‘breakfast basin’ in a work from the late eighteenth century, but both it and its abbreviated form became particularly ‘big’ when in the mid-twentieth century clothing manufacturers and retailers began to offer their customers ‘extra-large’ as part of a range of standard sizes: ‘for the outdoor man, shirt and drawers, size small, medium, large and extra large.’

Do look now

The verb to look and its compounds and derivatives are used in a wide range of senses relating to the directing of one’s eyes or mind in a particular direction, or to the possession of a particular appearance. Unsurprisingly, these words have given rise to a large number of idiomatic phrases in English, several of which make their first appearance in OED today. As well as revealing when people first began to look the sort who might be prepared to look the other way, or when naughty child was first told to look what you’ve done!, this update also suggests that one of the most famous lines in the history of film might have been subtly different. ‘Here’s looking at you’, a formula originally used as a toast when drinking someone’s health made famous in the film Casablanca, and first included in OED in 1976, was preceded by a more formal alternative. How much less memorable would it have been had Humphrey Bogart chucked Ingrid Bergman on the chin and said ‘Here’s looking toward you, kid’?

(Incidentally, if you happen to have the look of Humphrey Bogart, or Marilyn Monroe, or Elvis, today’s update reveals that the career path of celebrity lookalike has been open—linguistically at least—to you since the late 1960s.)

The phrase don’t look now has been giving cinemagoers nightmares (and causing them to be always looking over their shoulder for a small red duffel coat, now an object of overmastering terror) since the release in 1973 of Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier story with the same name. It has been used since the second half of the nineteenth century as a way of drawing someone’s attention to something while warning them it would be best if they weren’t seen to be looking at it. When used in earnest, of course, human curiosity frequently gets the better of cautious discretion, and all too often the injunction ‘don’t look now’ produces an immediate glance at, or reaction to, the thing indicated. Perhaps because of this—and despite its later horrific associations—by the 1930s the phrase had been repurposed (especially as don’t look now, but…) as a slyly humorous way of getting a person to turn their attention immediately (and without any attempt at concealment) to something exciting or unexpected.

A cry of look mom, no hands! usually conjures up the image of a child demonstrating their hands-free cycling skills to a (probably appalled) parent, although it has since been extended to any ostentatious display of self-confidence. It comes as a surprise then, to find that this update traces the phrase back to a 1937 cartoon in which neither a mother nor a bicycle appears. In a Fritzi Ritz strip syndicated in U.S. newspapers in April of that year, the title character’s assurance to the grand Mrs Jackpot that her niece, Nancy is a ‘very quiet child’ is undermined when the girl herself makes an appearance, balancing a table lamp on her head and sliding down one of Mrs Jackpot’s palatial banisters, shouting YIPPEE! Look Aunt Fritzi—no hands!!

Healthy, wealthy, and wise?

While sliding down banisters might not be the best way to avoid an early grave, the revised entry for early illustrates the history of one of the advice on how to live a long and happy life that is contained in one of the most familiar English proverbs. The earliest evidence available for early to bed, early to rise (makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise) dates from 1639, but as early as 1496 a treatise on fishing contained in the Book of St Albans told its readers that ‘the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth… Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy & zely.’ This version substitutes the obsolete adjective seely (or ‘zely’—‘fortunate’ or ‘blessed’) for the more familiar wealthy, but by 1523 ‘richer in goodes’ had been added to physical and spiritual wholeness as one of the core benefits of such a daily routine.

We’ve clearly been worrying about personal wealth for a long time, and most of us these days are affected by earnings-related anxiety, and worries about earning capacity and earning power (both nineteenth-century coinages), are reflected in several new twentieth-century compounds relating to earned income, including earnings growth, earnings report, earnings drift,  and earnings gap. Marxist economists and historians might regard these concerns to be symptomatic of the stage in the development of capitalism known as late capitalism, in which all areas of life are believed to be dominated by consumerism, globalism, and big business. Yet another new lemma at earning arrives from a much earlier, feudal age with economic drawbacks of its own. Earningland, first recorded in an eleventh-century charter, was land granted to a dependent by his lord in return for services rendered; While in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, horses (literally) and people (metaphorically) were said to have to earn their corn rather than their keep, in Anglo-Saxon England, individuals might first have had to earn the land on which to grow it.

Speaking of earnings, this lexicographer had better get back to work—see you later!