Cartoon bears and killer clowns: new entries in the OED March 2020 update

Cartoon bears and killer clowns: new entries in the OED March 2020 update

Here at the coalface of lexicography, we OED editors often have to grapple with new words that we have no prior knowledge of whatsoever, sometimes in highly specialized fields such as law, philosophy, and synchronized swimming. At such times we rely on our research skills, and on our colleagues and external consultants; we do our very best to get to grips with the subject, and come to understand the sense of what we’re looking at.

Some of the new entries in this quarter’s release must have posed such a challenge. For example, for such practical men-and-women-of-action as my colleagues, chin-stroking and beard-stroking must have been distant concepts, with their intimations of ‘excessive deliberation or pondering’ and ‘over-intellectualism, pretentiousness’. Similarly, full of vim and vigour as we all are, it’s easy to imagine the team struggling at first to comprehend anergy: a term used in psychiatry since the late 1800s to mean ‘loss or lack of mental or physical energy, esp. as manifested in inactivity or disinclination to act’. Still, we are professionals: we use online databases and language corpora to ensure that we get an overview of a word’s whole history, avoiding anecdata (‘information or evidence based on reports of individual cases rather than systematic research or analysis; anecdotal evidence’), and then we record the words as they are used, doing all we can to make sure that the definitions we write are clear and concise, not ambigues (‘ambiguous statements or expressions’ – a rare word, apparently only used in the sixteenth century).

After all, we want our entries to be useful to the average bear, not just professors of philology. We have the cartoon character Yogi Bear to thank for this term, used in comparative phrases since 1960 to mean ‘the average person’, still most famously in his own ‘smarter than the average bear’. Our revision of the bear entries relating to Yogi’s real-life counterparts has generated a number of interesting new additions, highlighting our unusual relationship with these large mammals. While we often anthropomorphize them, as with Yogi, and place soft versions of them in our children’s beds, we also fear them: to poke the bear is ‘to deliberately provoke or antagonize a person or group, esp. one that is dangerous or powerful’; we carry bear spray and bear bells in areas where we think they might roam, and bear-proof buildings and structures within their reach. The most terrifying of these new entries though, for anyone on a diet at least, is the bear claw: this pastry, shaped to resemble an ursine paw and typically filled with almond paste then glazed with melted sugar, has been scaring waistlines in the United States since at least 1915 (meaning Yogi may well have found one in a pic-a-nic basket).

Updating the bear range also meant working on entries and senses relating to carrying and giving birth to children. New phrases at the adjective born show the circumstances of a person’s birth being used to explain their characteristics or situation later in life. In Jamaica, a naive or unsophisticated person is said to have been born behind a cow; more widely, were you born in a barn? (or field) has been said since at least 1895 to someone who has left a door open and caused a draft, or is behaving in a rude or uncouth manner. A person born with an advantage over others, especially in terms of wealth or privilege, is sometimes said in North America to have been born on third (or third base); this allusion to baseball shows inherited fortune or status as an unearned advantage, as does his father was born before him, used to indicate that a man has inherited, not worked for, his wealth or privileged position. (This dates back to 1666; her father was born before her is a later variation.)

But of course, not everyone is born with an advantage. We’ve known since 1835 that there’s one born every minute; that is, that there are many naïve or gullible people who are easy to cheat or deceive (a sucker is a common modern variation on one). And for every person who is born ready (first seen 1877), with a natural eagerness to meet a challenge, there’s no doubt one who was born tired (1864), chronically lazy and apathetic. (Though not on the OED staff, as already mentioned.)

Birth is a major theme elsewhere in this update too; the other notes accompanying this release focus on the revision of the OED’s entry for Christmas, part of a wider range which includes Jesus, Christ, and many other fascinating and historically important entries. Among them we see various new additions showing minced oaths: that is, words or phrases that are alterations of, and act as euphemisms for, others that would be considered profane or blasphemous. Jeez as an interjection (shortened from Jesus) was already in the OED, but three related entries have been added in this update. Jeez Louise is one, used to express any of a number of feelings or emotions, especially surprise, dismay, or exasperation. The earliest written evidence for it that we could find is from a 1957 Californian newspaper, the Redlands Daily Facts; the ‘Louise’ element may have been added for further euphemism, as a rhyming element echoing compounds like jeepers-creepers (jeepers itself being another minced oath for Jesus).

The other two have particular connections with New England. Jeezum is originally from, and most commonly found in, Vermont. It’s used as an interjection to show surprise, disbelief, and more, and is often used as the first element in phrases like Jeezum crow (for Jesus Christ). Jeezly, meanwhile, is used as both an adjectival and adverbial intensifier (along the lines of ‘damned, darned’ and ‘damnably’) in Canada and the US, chiefly in Maine (you’ll find it in more than one Stephen King novel, including It).

Speaking of that particular book, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that there’s a mention of It in a quotation at our new entry, coulrophobia. This is ‘extreme or irrational fear of clowns’, and as the earliest evidence we could find for it dates back to only 1997, it’s likely that Mr King’s 1986 novel and the 1990 television adaptation played their parts in creating a need for this word in our vocabulary. (Chapeau to the novelist. He certainly didn’t create the fear itself though: clowns with a dark side appeared in dramatic works long before this, and a quick scan through some of our databases reveals a letter to the Washington Post and Times Herald from 1955, in which a parent asks for advice on dealing with their daughter’s fear of clowns; the expert describes it as ‘a little unusual’, and links it with a more common fear of masks.) The first element of the word, by the way, has proven tricky to pin down; coulro– is of unknown origin, and while there are some possibilities highlighted in the entry’s etymology section, it may well be arbitrary.

We can’t finish with scary clowns though, so let’s have a quick dip back into the release’s less terrifying new additions. A pronoid is a person convinced of the goodwill of others, or or the pervasiveness of serendipity (though, perhaps unfortunately, it’s typically with reference to this viewed as an irrational outlook). It’s good to know that words can ameliorate (new sense 3: ‘Of a word, expression, etc.: to develop a more favourable meaning or more positive connotations.’ In such a way did nice move on from meaning ‘foolish, silly, ignorant’). And finally, to really make us all feel better, a young or baby echidna or platypus is colloquially called a puggle. There is one at the top of the page. You’re welcome.

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