September 2009: new words notes

September 2009: new words notes

This OED release includes a characteristically wide variety of entirely new entries, as well as many newly added senses, compounds, and phrases. In the last category, a number of evocative colloquial idioms make their first appearance in the text; to prolong the agony (at AGONY n.), bright as a button (at BRIGHT adj. and n), calm before the storm (at CALM n.¹), tall drink of water (at DRINK n.). A higher-than-average proportion of the added senses and compounds relate to social, legal, and political concerns: accreditation, advance directive, adversarial system, cardboard city, change management, community rehabilitation order, force protection. Many of these terms have a longish history. However this batch also contains a number of newly prepared entries for much more recent coinages, many of them technical terms.

Developing technologies continue to furnish hundreds of new words and compounds every year, and these are amongst the most difficult to evaluate objectively for inclusion in OED. With infinite editorial resources, we could mine this seam endlessly, but even a dictionary as comprehensive as this cannot hope to cover more than a small percentage of terminology in specialist use. The abiding editorial principle is to cover the most widely used and enduring vocabulary in any subject.

Technical neologisms can be hard to evaluate. Particularly in a field like consumer electronics, new terms can rapidly gain a level of usage which would pass the most stringent threshold, were frequency the sole criterion for inclusion. But longevity is another key consideration, and it’s not possible to determine quickly the staying power of such high-profile coinages. Post-industrial history is littered with superseded technologies and their associated vocabulary, and OED includes many temporary technical terms of this kind: from the recently deceased minidisc, to the almost forgotten theatrophone, a late 19th-century invention, offering live relay of theatrical or musical performances to the home phones of subscribers (Marcel Proust among them).

Even if a word is gone tomorrow, there will be those who want to know it was here today. The theatrophone might sound primitive, even outlandish now, but it was advanced in its day, and it has a historical importance, too. It was one of the first devices to fulfil an ambition to provide remote real-time access to entertainment and information; the same ambition that has fuelled the subsequent history of broadcasting and digital communications. The technology and terminology have changed (from broadcasting and simulcasting to webcasting and streaming), but the very diversity of the linguistic history illustrates the abiding strength of that one aspiration.

Because OED‘s editorial policy is to retain permanently any word entered into the Dictionary, we seek to maintain a high level of awareness of new and evolving language while reserving judgement about its durability. For technical terms, we also look for indications that usage has extended outwards from purely specialist writing into general-interest or news publications. We will note and track a neologism, often researching and drafting a definition, but we generally publish only when a word has appeared continuously and frequently in print or online sources for at least a decade. On those criteria, published for the first time in OED this quarter are two entries for recent technical coinages with brief but contrasting histories.


Developments in mobile communications provide a fertile source of neologisms (jargon, if you prefer). First recorded in 1995, 3G denotes the third generation of wireless telecommunications technology: the point at which mobile phones, laptops, and other portable devices could access Internet and multimedia services wirelessly via broadband technology.

If you suspect that the first and second generations somehow passed you by, there is a good reason for that; one which also explains why you won’t (yet) find corresponding entries for 1G and 2G in OED. First generation mobile telephony comprised mobile voice calls via analogue radio signals. The second generation technology (dating from the early 1990s) marks the introduction of digitally encrypted voice signals and the addition of some data services, such as text messaging, which ushered in the age of the mass-produced mobile phones. So, the technology – or at least the phenomenon it created – is perfectly familiar, but for most of us the terminology isn’t.

The obvious explanation for this would be that 1G and 2G had been only in specialist technical use until 3G was popularised as part of the marketing campaign for the commercial launch of phones using the technology. But to date we’ve found no evidence of 1G or 2G that predates that for 3G. Our research suggests that the terms 1G and 2G – indeed the idea of the first and second generation – were conceived retrospectively, to coincide with the development of 3G, and as means of suggesting its advance on older standards. It’s an unusual case of terminology being manufactured with the kind of in-built obsolescence more often associated with the products themselves.

Although mobile phones still use 2G technology, the term isn’t widely used except in technical descriptions – after all, it’s not a selling point. 1G emits an even fainter signal. They may never gain sufficient currency for separate inclusion in OED, but at least their unusual phantom history is briefly recorded in the entry for 3G. By contrast, 4G is already flourishing as a term, despite the fact that the technology it may eventually describe is still being developed.


OED‘s entries for blog, blogger, blogging, and weblog were published in 2002: unusually rapid entrants, though weblog had been in use since the 1990s. Only now is the related entry for blogosphere published. The reason for its later inclusion is that (in contrast with blog itself) this word did not quickly establish itself, even among the blogging community it describes.

The quotations cited in the entry illustrate its halting early development, and may afford an insight into how new coinages establish themselves (or don’t) in regular usage. Here is the first recorded instance, from the Usenet archives:

1999 B. L. Graham (Weblog) 10 Sept. (O.E.D. Archive), Goodbye, cyberspace! Hello, blogiverse! Blogosphere? Blogmos?

Perhaps because the writer suggests three alternatives, blogosphere appears not to have been taken up and reused by readers of the piece. More than two years later comes an apparently independent re-coinage:

2002 W. Quick DailyPundit 1 Jan. in (O.E.D. Archive), I propose a name for the intellectual cyberspace we bloggers occupy: the Blogosphere.

For whatever reason – the firmness of the proposal (without alternatives), wider readership of the message, the appeal to intellectualism or community – this appears to have generated further usage. From early 2002, the term becomes relatively common in blogs, quickly extending into the world of conventional print. Second time around, blogosphere seems to have found its niche.

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