It’s time to kvell about some awesomesauce new words: the OED January 2020 update

It’s time to kvell about some awesomesauce new words: the OED January 2020 update

The January 2020 update to the Oxford English Dictionary is now online, and OED lexicographers having rubbed their minds together are ready to share the latest contributions to their work in progress (WIP)—a lexicographical mood-brightener bringing a splash of taxicab yellow to winter, and plenty besides to sink one’s teeth into for anyone whose tastes tend in that direction.

(I’m trying to get my stylistic excesses out of the way early, mindful that this quarter’s update includes entries for mentionitis and shticky , both self-consciousness-inducing terms for the author of the listicle or someone attempting to gist or summarize a large amount of information. I shall do my best to rein myself in.)

From a-eastell into the top bin

As in most OED updates, today we publish a wealth of words and phrases from wide-ranging contexts and different aspects of modern life. From the world of business we have a new sense for report, an employee accountable to a particular manager within a line of report or reporting line; and a new entry for onboarding, a 1990s coinage denoting the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization or team. Later twentieth-century philosophy and theory are present in the form of new entries for Foucauldian and Barthesian. From sport, we have top bin (attested from 1999), a British name for either of the upper corners of a goal, or a goal scored by sending the ball into one of these, of somewhat obscure etymology; tag rugby, a non-contact form of the game; a new baseball sense of away; and barney, a British, Australian, and New Zealand term for an appeal against the outcome of a sporting contest. Other pastimes are represented by a new entry for UFO, a humorous name for an UnFinished Object in handicraft circles; bokeh, a borrowing from Japanese denoting blur or haze in a photographic image, an artistic effect made increasingly easy to produce in digital photography; and, from the world of online gaming, teabagging: making one’s character in a game squat repeatedly on the head of a defeated opponent’s character, in order to express jubilation at winning, and in order to humiliate one’s opponent. (The range of entries for tea-bag, v. and related words is not for the easily shocked, despite the fact that each begins with senses referring to the manufacture of the porous drinks sachets themselves.)

New material this time reaches, quite literally, from A to Z, with entries for a-eastell, an obsolete Scottish preposition meaning ‘at, in, or to the east of’, and specific senses of zone and zoning referring to Nigerian politics. Among the entries dating to the earliest records of English are awel, a hook or hooked implement, especially one used as an instrument of torture, and mentioned frequently in the grisly accounts of the torments of hell and the martyrdoms of the saints found in Old and Middle English religious literature; and the verb wiele, to cast a magic spell, or make a divination of the future. Our most recent additions, on the other hand, include droning, the action of using a military drone or a similar commercially available device, first recorded as a noun in 2010; and nanoplastic, first used in 2011 with reference to pollution of the environment with microscopic fragments of plastic.

You might expect two other additions in this update to belong with this tranche of relatively contemporary words, because of their recent prominence in popular culture and on social media: burn, n. meaning ‘a scathing remark or retort; a particularly cutting insult’ (also used as an interjection to draw attention to a preceding remark of this kind), and burn, v. meaning ‘to criticize, reprimand, or berate; to insult’. If you did assume they were relative newcomers to the language, you’d be suffering from the recency illusion, the belief or impression that something that one has just noticed is of recent origin, when it is in fact long-established: new entries for the words trace burn in this sense as a verb back to 1914, and as a noun to 1942. (Safe space, too, is a seemingly modern term with an earlier first quotation than we might expect, from 1974; it denotes ‘a place or environment in which people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm’.) More recent slang inclusions include weak sauce, meaning ‘lacking in power or substance; pathetic, stupid’, first recorded from California in 1989, and the later (but more euphonious) awesomesauce, first recorded in a Usenet newsgroup in 2001.

A piece of Multicultural London English, hench, meaning ‘muscular, fit, strong’, is first recorded in our entry in 2003. It is a back-formation of sorts, presumably made with the idea that a criminal henchman or heavy is necessarily a strong man. In fact the first element of henchman is probably hengest, an Old English word referring to a male horse. It is probable that the first henchman was a type of groom, although the word is first recorded referring to high-ranking male servants in royal and noble households in the fourteenth century, without any explicit connection to the care of horses.

The bird is the wor(l)d

While nanoplastics, microplastics, and the presence of electrical and electronic waste might be seen as distinctive markers of the Anthropocene, humanity’s ability to remodel the planet on which we live according to our own needs is perhaps best demonstrated, it has been suggested, by the relentless march of another species: the domestic chicken. This update to OED includes a full revision (following on from that for cock in our September update) of chicken and hen and related words, and some of our new additions show just how much the most numerous bird species on earth has become a fixture of our day-to-day lives and thought. 

The ability (or curse) of the humble chicken to make meat affordable to many is reflected in the American political slogan, a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage), a paraphrase of a famous resolution by Henry IV of France, picked up and elaborated upon by Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign. Other phrases added in these paired ranges include to put the fox in charge of the henhouse, and the gruesomely evocative running around like a chicken with its head cut off (a variant on the slightly earlier running around like a headless chicken, already in OED).

Despite our apparently insatiable appetite for chicken meat (1826) and eggs, we tend, it seems, to take a dim view of the domestic fowl’s courage and intelligence, an attitude underlined by new entries for chicken-headed (1842) and chicken-heartedness (1808), and for both Chicken Little and Chicken Licken (1844 and 1922 respectively, in the uses illustrated here), alternative names for an avian character in a farmyard folk tale first recorded in the nineteenth century, who has provided us with a type of, and name for, anyone who panics easily, or spreads alarm amongst others. More garrulous associations are on display in new entries for henpecking as a noun (1775) and an adjective (1821), and for new senses of the largely New Zealand and Australian hen cackle (1865) referring to the actual noise of hens, and in extended use of human gossip and idle chatter. (As earlier editions of OED have already recorded, the term has also been used as a name for a mountain that is easy to climb.) The literal sense of hen cackle is recorded earliest as a notional measure of the short distance up to which the sound of cackling fowl could be heard; another chicken-related term for a short distance included in this update is the Irish English term a hen’s race, first attested in the nineteenth century.

Jewish penicillin and Yiddish borrowings

Soups made with chicken make more than one appearance in this update, in new entries for chicken soup, chicken noodle soup, and the humorous name Jewish penicillin, reflecting the strong association of this dish with Jewish culture, and its popular reputation as a restorative or cure-all.

The latter term is part of another wider range, as this quarter we publish revised versions of Jewish and all immediately related entries, and also a range of words with Yiddish etymologies, including farbrengen, one name for a gathering with eating, drinking, singing, and discussion of Hasidic teachings, also known as a bote or tish; unterfirer, a person such as a parent who accompanies the bride or groom to the chuppah in a Jewish wedding ceremony; chrain, horseradish, or a hot and piquant sauce made from it; the audacious and self-confident chutzpadik; the complainingly critical kvetching and kvetchy; and new senses of kvell, meaning to talk admiringly, enthusiastically, or proudly about something.

Regional and world English

Two distinctive regional names for a small, local shop or convenience store are added today, joining a subcategory of world English covered in OED that already includes Canadian dépanneur and South African café. Scottish and New Zealand use of dairy in this sense is traced back to 1914, when the shops called by this name specialized in milk and other dairy produce, but a 1945 quotation from the debates of the New Zealand parliament shows that the name had already been extended to any small grocery shop by this time.

In New York, a similar shop is now typically referred to as a bodega. The earliest evidence in our new sense illustrating this use is from 1956, referring specifically to the Puerto-Rican-owned businesses of this type that were then found throughout the city; from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, it became more widely used to refer to any local shop or convenience store. (Another regional sense of bodega added in this update has a longer history: in Philippine English, the word has been used since the mid nineteenth century to denote a storeroom or storehouse.)

We’ve also revised our entry for the adjective dreich. Now distinctively Scottish (it was voted ‘The most iconic Scots word’ for Book Week Scotland in November), it’s most familiar as a way of referring to dull, grey, cold, or wet weather. This main current sense itself seems most likely to have arisen from the blending of two earlier uses: one referring to persistent rainfall, and another used to classify anything regarded as dreary, monotonous, or lacking in enjoyment. Our revised entry also includes—for the first time in OED—the earliest use of dreich: an eleventh-century Old English version of a collection of ecclesiastical regulations stipulates that ‘at a vigil it is right and proper that one should be very dreich, and should pray in earnest, and not indulge in any drinking or frivolity there‘.

Other regional vocabulary covered this quarter includes a cluster of related names for a long streak or wisp of cirrus cloud, often regarded in weather-lore as a herald of stormy weather (hen scrat, hen scratch, and hen scrattin); the Indian English taxi wallah; the Scottish and Northern Irish intensifier awfy (or affy), first recorded as an adverb in the work of Walter Scott; chickee, an open-sided palm-thatched dwelling with a raised floor, traditionally built by the Seminole people of the south-eastern United States; and last but not least, the Australian franger, apparently a distinctively antipodean alteration of French letter, or Frenchy: a condom.

The great majority of the new regional material in this update, though, marks a significant expansion of our coverage of one particular variety of World English: that spoken in Nigeria. You can read about the scope and content of that update in this article by OED’s World English Editor, Danica Salazar, and about the development of a new pronunciation model to create phonetic transcriptions for these entries in this piece by Catherine Sangster, our Head of Pronunciations.

Photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

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