New words notes September 2017

By Katherine Connor Martin, Head of US Dictionaries

The September 2017 quarterly update of the OED includes more than 1000 new headwords, senses, and subentries. The full list of new entries can be found here.

Not all words that are new to the dictionary are new in the sense of being recent additions to the English language itself. Many additions are ancient and obsolete, but they contribute to the OED’s mission of recording the millennium-long history of English. One evocative obsolete word in the new update is the verb afound meaning ‘to become numb or stiff with cold’, an Anglo-Norman loanword used by Chaucer. Another is through-smite (‘to pierce or run through, as with a spear or other pointed weapon’), which was used by John Gower and William Caxton, among others. By the 19th century, through-smite was only in self-consciously poetic or archaic use, and by the early 20th century it had fallen out of use altogether.

Representing the other end of the chronological spectrum is the term fatberg, which dates only from 2008. It denotes a large lump of cooking fat and other waste which has congealed and hardened after being poured down a drain, or a very large mass of waste found blocking a sewage system. On its face, this concept does not suggest the pristine majesty of the iceberg from which it takes its name, but the motivation is suggested by the first citation, which describes a display of photographs of rubbish and pollution: ‘particularly memorable are the large, rock-like lumps of cooking fat [Alistair] Grant calls “fatbergs”, washed up on Newborough Beach’ (2008 Birmingham Post 22 Jan., p. 13).

An exoplanet is a planet which orbits a star other than the sun, also known as an extrasolar planet. The word is attested from 1992, around the time that the existence of the first exoplanets was confirmed. In the years since, advances in technology, and in particular the launch of the Kepler space telescope, have led to the discovery of thousands of exoplanets; according to NASA, the number now exceeds 3,500.

Among the other scientific terms added in this update are several words referring to geological time. Chronozone (short for chronostratigraphic zone) refers to a sequence of rock layers formed during a time interval bounded by distinct events, or to the interval itself. This word was further shortened to chron, denoting the period of time between two geologic events, especially reversals in the polarity of the earth’s magnetic field. A chron lasting more than ten million years is called a superchron, while one lasting less than 200,000 years is a subchron.

Belsnickel is a character in Rhineland folklore who visits children before Christmas to reward good ones with gifts and punish naughty ones. Across the Atlantic in some North American communities with German roots, the term came to refer to a person who visited people at Christmas or the New Year in disguise to play pranks or beg for small gifts or refreshments (to do this is to belsnickel). The first part of Belsnickel’s name is sometimes spelled “Bell” and interpreted as referring to the festive bells, but it actually comes from German Peltz (fur), with reference to the German character’s fur costume.

Winterval, a blend of winter and festival, is used as a culturally non-specific name for the winter holiday season around Christmas, or to refer to specific events taking place during that time. The word has been in use since at least 1982, but remains relatively uncommon.

Many words recorded in the OED are not regarded as part of standard English. Worstest belongs to this category. Like its analogue bestest, which was added in 2014, worstest is a double superlative used mainly in representations of nonstandard speech or for humorous effect. Despite being considered nonstandard, worstest has a long history: the first citation comes from a 1768 comedy called Modern Courtship.

To fall off the wagon (1906) is to begin consuming alcohol again after a period of abstinence, or more generally to relapse into any harmful habit. Similarly, to be on the wagon is to be abstaining from alcohol. The connection between wagons and sobriety lies is the earlier (1889) phrase to be on the water wagon, suggesting the beverage choice of teetotalers. Someone who has fallen off the wagon might be said to resort to liquid courage (1826; ‘alcohol, especially spirits, regarded as a means of increasing one’s confidence or reducing one’s inhibitions’).

In some regions of England, a croggy is a ride given to a passenger on a bicycle, in which the recipient sits on the crossbar, handlebars, or behind the person pedalling. It is thought to be formed from cro- in cross-bar, perhaps influenced by words like doggy, piggy, and ciggy. This is just one of many words from regional English dialect that were suggested by listeners to BBC Local Radio. Others include yampy (‘mad or crazy’) from the west midlands, snived (‘overrun, infested’) from the north-west midlands, goke (‘the core of an apple or pear’) from the north-east, and corporation pop, northern slang for ‘water, especially tap water, as a drink’.

It is often challenging to find written evidence for regional colloquialisms like these, which are used mainly in spoken contexts and don’t often make their way into print. The social media service Twitter has been an unexpected boon to lexicographers, as it provides a searchable record of millions of people’s informal use of English. Citations from Twitter are featured in many of the new entries for regional words. The quotation paragraph for the north-eastern word mafted (‘exhausted from heat, crowds, or exertion’) begins with a definition from a glossary compiled around the year 1800 and ends with a 2010 quotation taken from Twitter user @lucyinglis: ‘Dear Lord—a fur coat on the Bakerloo line, she must have been mafted.’ Entries like this are a vivid illustration of how modern lexicographers leverage the extraordinary resources of the digital era to build on the tradition established by our predecessors.

American and British English often have distinctive versions of established idioms. The American equivalent of the British phrase to be so —— it isn’t true, used to indicate that something displays a quality to an extreme or incredible degree, is  to be so —— it isn’t funny (1930), which is added to the OED in this update. Among the citations is a thematically appropriate boast from a 1958 letter written by the American writer Jack Kerouac: ‘I have invented so many new words it’s not funny.’

For more detailed discussions of some of the English regional words added to the OED as part of this update, see Eleanor Maier’s articles for the Oxford Words blog on cheeselog and on the huh.