New words notes June 2017

New words notes June 2017

The latest update of the Oxford English Dictionary includes over 1,200 new words, phrases, and senses from the newly revised alphabetic ranges and from around the alphabet. Some highlights of the new additions are discussed below.

A new sense of thing

The noun thing has been part of the English lexicon for more than a thousand years, but the OED now defines a new meaning which has only arisen in the past two decades. The new sense is defined as ‘a genuine or established phenomenon or practice’, and is often used in questions conveying surprise or incredulity, such as ‘is that even a thing?’ The earliest citation is from 2000, in an episode of the U.S. television programme, The West Wing: ‘Did you know that “leaf peeping” was a thing?’

Boston marriage

The term Boston marriage is used, chiefly in historical contexts, to describe the cohabitation of two women, especially in a romantic relationship or intimate friendship—a living arrangement that was an acknowledged cultural phenomenon among unmarried, well-to-do American women in the late 19th century. The depiction of such a relationship in Henry James’s novel The Bostonians (1886) may have inspired the term, or it may be that both the term and the title of the novel allude to the prevalence of such cohabitation in the city of Boston. The OED’s earliest evidence for the usage comes from an 1893 letter to the editor of the progressive journal Open Court by the Beacon Hill-born reformer and suffragist Ednah D. Cheney. Cheney wrote that she ‘for many years has been accustomed to the existence of ties between women so intimate and persistent, that they are fully recognized by their friends, and of late have acquired, if not a local habitation, at least a name, for they have been christened “Boston Marriages”’. She goes on to say that although she would not go so far as to suggest that Boston marriages be ‘adopted into our civil code’, still ‘this institution deserves to be recognized as a really valuable one for women in our present state of civilisation.’

A variety of veils

In conjunction with the revision of the OED’s entry for the word veil, entries were added for several types of veil not previously covered in the dictionary. The largest category of these are terms referring to different styles of bridal veil:  birdcage veil, blusher veil, cathedral veil, and fingertip veil. The terms full veil and Islamic veil are used to refer generally to various types of garments and head coverings worn by some Islamic women. And the metaphorical corporate veil refers to the legal treatment of a corporation as an entity separate from its directors and shareholders, so as to protect them from personal liability.

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The particle zoo

The field of particle physics has introduced a motley plethora of terms for subatomic particles—both confirmed and hypothetical—to the lexicon of English, including quark, graviton, lepton, boson, gluon, gluino, and leptoquark. Colloquially, the collective term for all of the various types of subatomic particle is the particle zoo.


The colloquial use of Arctic to mean ‘extremely cold’ has been established in English since the 19th century; more recently, Baltic has taken on a similar meaning, especially in Scotland. Among the quotations in the OED’s new entry for this sense is a particularly evocative one from a Dundee University student newspaper: ‘It’s fair baltic nockin’ aboot ootside in this weather’ (1999 Student Times 2 Feb., p. 8).


1962 N.Y. Times, 20 May, p.45

Woken is the usual past participle of the verb wake in modern English, but in some historical and contemporary varieties the past tense form woke is also used as a past participle. Participial use of woke in some African-American varieties of English has generated an adjectival meaning that has recently become prominent in general American use, prompting the addition of a new entry for woke as an adjective. The original meaning of adjectival woke (and earlier woke up) was simply ‘awake’, but by the mid-20th century, woke had been extended figuratively to refer to being ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ in a political or cultural sense. In the past decade, that meaning has been catapulted into mainstream use with a particular nuance of ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’, popularized through the lyrics of the 2008 song Master Teacher by Erykah Badu, in which the words ‘I stay woke’ serve as a refrain, and more recently through its association with the Black Lives Matter movement, especially on social media.

This well established but newly prominent usage of woke has become emblematic of the ways in which black American culture and language are adopted by non-black people who don’t always appreciate their full historical and cultural context. It is therefore of particular interest that the earliest citation for woke, adj. in the figurative sense comes from a 1962 article by the African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley in the New York Times, entitled ‘If you’re woke, you dig it’, which describes how white beatniks were appropriating black slang at the time. The article was illustrated with a cartoon of lexicographers struggling to understand ‘today’s Negro idiom’ (1962 N.Y. Times 20 May, p. 45).

Because of the term’s prominence in today’s popular culture, as well as the role it seems to have played in the 1960s and 70s, the OED Appeals Program is currently seeking any contextual evidence (i.e. not from a glossary or definition) of woke meaning ‘well informed’ or ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’ that dates from earlier than 2008.

Faces and heels

In the jargon of professional wrestling, a baby face (often shortened to face) is a wrestler who is cast as the hero or ‘good guy’ in a match. His antagonist, the typecast ‘bad guy’, is known as the heel, a term that developed from criminal slang for a dishonourable, untrustworthy, or despicable person.

Son of a bachelor is a term of contempt that manages to be a euphemistic variation on a harsher insult twice over: it resembles bastard in meaning and son of a bitch in sound and appearance. The term is attested from as early as 1657 in a play by Thomas Jordan:  ‘You son of a Batchelor, do you throw your Pispots upon my head.’


Oxford’s 2016 word of the year, post-truth, is entered into the OED in this update. Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, it evidences an emerging use of post– prefix forming words denoting that a specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant. Earlier words using post– in this way include postnational and post-racial.

In conclusion

Until now, the last alphabetic entry in the OED was zythum, a kind of malt beer brewed in ancient Egypt. But as of today’s update, the title belongs to Zyzzyva, the name of a genus of tropical weevils native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees. The name of the genus was apparently coined by the entomologist Thomas Lincoln Casey, who described it in a 1922 publication. The motivation for the name isn’t clear; some sources suggest it is an onomatopoeic reference to the noise made by the weevil, possibly inspired by a former genus of leafhoppers, Zyzza, and perhaps chosen deliberately as an alphabetical curiosity. In any case, Zyzzyva owes much of its currency in English to its notoriety as the last entry in various dictionaries, the ranks of which now include the OED.

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