New words notes June 2014

New words notes June 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added over 1000 new words, phrases, and senses in this update. These include additions to revised ranges as well as new items from around the alphabet. As always, the new items represent a range of material: some are words which are genuinely new to English, having originated only in the past decade or so; many first emerged in the mid- to late 20th century, but have only recently become well established; and others are even older, but have not been recorded in the dictionary before now. Some highlights of the present update are discussed below; the full list of new words and senses may be found here.

The term Anthropocene has been adopted to refer to the era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth. The -cene suffix, derived from the Greek for ‘new’ or ‘recent’, has been used since the 1830s to form names denoting the epochs and strata of the present Cenozoic era of geological time, ranging from the Palaeocene to the Holocene. The Holocene epoch covers roughly the past 10,000 years, starting after the retreat of the ice in the last glaciation of the Pleistocene. That period corresponds with the major developments of human society and technology from the Neolithic to the modern era, but the term Anthropocene (from anthropo- ‘human’, as in anthropology) is typically used to refer to a much shorter period in which human activity has become a major ecological force, beginning with the Industrial Revolution.

Flexitarian (from 1998, referring to a person who keeps a primarily but not strictly vegetarian diet) and pescatarian (from 1991, referring to a person who keeps a diet that includes fish but not meat), are the latest in an eclectic line of -arian diet words to enter the OED. Earlier words in this family include breatharian (from at least 1979 in reference to a person who claims to take no sustenance but air), nutarian (from at least 1909 in reference to vegetarians who eat only nut products), and fruitarian (from the late 19th century in reference to a person who eats only fruit). The forebear of the set is of course the word vegetarian, which has been used since at least 1842 to denote a person who abstains from eating meat.

Conlang (short for ‘constructed language’), denotes an artificial language, whether constructed for the purpose of communication (like Esperanto), for use in a work of fiction (like Klingon or Dothraki), or simply as a personal hobby. The abbreviation seems originally to have arisen amongst artificial language enthusiasts on Usenet newsgroups in the early 1990s, but in recent years it has been adopted more widely.

The OED famously tends to wait until a word has been attested for several years before entering it into the dictionary, although exceptions are made for words which are extremely widespread or of unquestioned import. Furthermore, many words which lexicographers initially believe to be very new often prove, upon further research, to have much longer histories than anticipated (a prominent recent example being the abbreviation OMG, of which a 1917 example was unexpectedly found). As a result, there are fewer than 100 entries in the OED which date from 2000 or later. Until today’s update, the youngest word in the OED was crowdsourcing, but it has now been unseated by copernicium, the name of the artificially produced radioactive element with atomic number 112. The element was first produced in 1996, but IUPAC, the international body that approves new element names, did not officially approve the name copernicium until 2010. Earlier mentions of copernicium were found from 2009, but that still makes copernicium younger than even hashtag (attested from 2007), which also enters the dictionary in this update. Of course, as with any dating of a word, future research could change the chronology.

The OED’s entry for citizen was revised in this update, and among the new phrases added to it was citizen science: ‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’. The first citation for citizen science is from 1989, referring to work done by volunteers on behalf of the Audubon Society.

The English vocabulary has been enriched, particularly in recent decades, by a variety of terms intended to create common-gender alternatives for words which otherwise suggest a specific sex.  The most familiar coinages of this type are those in which -person is substituted for -man or -woman in words like spokesperson, but there have also been more novel innovations, such as the advent of waitron in the 1980s as an alternative to waiter/waitress, or the raft of gender-neutral third-person-singular pronouns that have been proposed through the years (thus far fruitlessly). Godself arose in the late 1970s in response to quandaries over how to avoid referring to God as belonging to a particular sex. Used in reflexive constructions (‘God has taken her to Godself’) or for emphasis (‘obstacles which God godself acts to overcome’) it provides an alternative to himself (or herself).

As environmental concerns change the way we dispose of waste and refuse, new words emerge to describe these novel processes. Upcycling refers to ‘the operation or process of reusing waste materials to create a product of higher value or quality’. In an unusual etymological twist, evidence suggests that das Upcycling may have existed as a pseudoanglicism in German before it was used in English. Another waste-disposal word in this update is the adjective compostable. Formed predictably from common English elements, compostable has been around since the 19th century, but it has soared into common use only in recent decades.

The word shovel-ready, describing construction projects or sites which are ready for construction to begin immediately, with all preliminary approval and planning complete, is evidenced in American use from at least 1995, but it didn’t rise to prominence until 2008, when newly elected President Barack Obama used it in the context of plans for economic stimulus. Since then, use of the term has skyrocketed in the United States, and evidence shows that it has begun to spread globally as well, making inroads particularly in Australia.
And finally, a word to strike terror in the hearts of spelling-bee participants: szomolnokite (attested from 1910), ‘an iron-containing mineral of the kieserite group occurring as yellow to brownish crystals.’

Katherine Connor Martin
Head of US Dictionaries

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.