New words notes September 2015

New words notes September 2015

It’s OED update time again and, as usual, we’ve got words from all over the lot for you, from a new-old sense of waterbuck (meaning an aquatic insect, possibly a pond-skater), recorded in a single thousand-year-old quotation, to a sense of waterball (‘a transparent inflatable sphere which can be propelled across water by a person inside walking or running’) first attested in 2007. But these two examples merely skim the surface (groan) of what’s on offer in this update. Let’s begin with something that typically hovers a few inches above the surface.

Hey, kid, I need your . . . hoverboard?

Hoverboards have been in the news a lot in the past year or so—figures from Oxford Languages New Monitor Corpus suggest that after two years of relative silence on the subject of floating skateboards in contemporary written sources, 2014 saw a sudden explosion of interest, and frequency of use is still on the rise.  This is no doubt partly due to the fact that this is a special year for fans of the Back to the Future trilogy of films, from the second of which a new OED entry for hoverboard takes its earliest evidence. July saw the thirtieth anniversary of the first film’s release, while next month brings an even more significant date: 21 October 2015, the point in the future to which Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown travel in order to save Marty’s kids from themselves in its 1989 sequel, Back to the Future Part II.

While some of the technology on show in that film’s futuristic version of Hill Valley’s Courthouse Square is now relatively familiar in our own 2015 (tablet computers, worn technology, and biometric locks), other promised advances (flying cars, domestic fusion generators, and holographic 3D movie advertisements) still seem a long way from everyday reality. The real-life status of perhaps the most iconic and coveted of the film’s gadgets is less clear-cut, however, and the spike on our frequency graphs also reflects the increasing number of reports of hoverboards in the real world over the last few months. But what is a real hoverboard? The prototypes unveiled by Lexus and ArxPax recently clearly satisfy the most important criteria for Back to the Future fans: they hover. Both rely on the repelling power of intense magnetic fields—generated by superconducting magnets cooled by liquid nitrogen—acting on a special magnetized track. So neither holds out the possibility that we’ll all be zooming around towns and cities on them anytime soon. On the other hand, the boards ridden by rapper Wiz Khalifa at Los Angeles airport recently (ridden, that is, until police wrestled him to the ground), and by a pilgrim performing the tawaf in Mecca are hoverboards in name only: the word is currently registered as a trademark in the US and the UK by manufacturers of a miniature, Segway-style, two-wheeled vehicle which stays firmly on the ground. Whether these devices take off (while not actually taking off) remains to be seen; certainly, they haven’t been round long enough to be included in the new OED entry, which restricts itself to boards that Marty McFly would recognize.

Witchcraft today

From one magical object to another. Gerald Gardner, a former tea-planter and retired colonial civil servant, is remembered now as the chief popularizer—and by some as the originator—of the neopagan Wiccan movement. It is appropriate and not unexpected, therefore, to find that a quotation from Gardner’s massively influential Witchcraft Today of 1954 provides the new OED entry for athame— a black-handled dagger used for ritual purposes—with our earliest entirely home-grown evidence, although it is first recorded in an English translation of a French occult treatise.  Witchcraft Today is notable even outside Wiccan circles for its account of a ceremony performed by British witches in the depths of the Second World War, when the threat of invasion was at its strongest. Gardner does not describe the ritual in detail, but he does tell us its purpose: to generate a ‘great cone of power’ through which to project negative thoughts into mind of Hitler himself, in order to deter him from giving the order to invade. Many of us may (respectfully) doubt the efficacy of this ritual (although as Gardner is careful to point out, ‘the fact was that Hitler never even tried to come’), but there can be little doubt that an athame—the sine qua non of the modern witch’s equipment—had its patriotic part to play. (In case you were wondering—as I was—athame is usually pronounced either ah- thah-may or ah-thay-may.)

Mixed feelings about big verbs

Revision of feel v. reveals—amongst many other things—that people and things have been making themselves felt since the seventeenth century (and making their presence felt since the late 1700s); that a character from an Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of 1829 appears to have been the first to feel their age (somewhat alarmingly for them, they suddenly became conscious of their own celibacy at the same moment); that people have been exhorting one another to feel free (to do something) since the late nineteenth century; and that people appear to have been asking for reassurance that they’ve been understood with the words do you feel me? for less than twenty years. Away from the verb itself, the quotations for a new sense at feeling n. show that the phrase to have feelings for (someone), now usually restricted to romantic attachments, was first used in the middle of the eighteenth century with reference to the bond between those who regard all of their fellow humans with fraternal affection.

Take v. is this update’s lexical leviathan, weighing in at over 586 senses (compared to the 603 of go v., and the staggering 654 of run v.). Here you can find new information about two rather snide expressions. You can take (a person) out of ——, but you can’t take —— out of (a person) has been around since at least 1915. In our earliest example it was ‘the man’, a baseball player known as ‘Rippey’ Williams, whose origins in ‘the country’ could not be disguised when, on a team trip to an amusement park, he rode the biggest horse on the merry-go-round for an hour. Another (less scornful) example asserts that, while it’s possible to take Björk out of her home country, it’s impossible to take Iceland out of her music. The Even more snarkyit takes one to know one is already described as ‘an old saying’ in the the earliest quotation tracked down by OED lexicographers (1935, of someone who has been described as a show-off). Two exhortations to opportunism, to take what one can get and to take (a thing) where one can find it, have been around in English since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (which might prompt you to ask us – what took you so long?).

To take again ——, meaning to take a dislike to someone or something, is relatively familiar in British English today in the humorous and slightly affected form to take agin (‘she took agin him’, ‘it’s no good: I’ve taken agin’), but the quotation paragraph for this phrasal verb tells a remarkable story of linguistic lurking: after two instances from the fifteenth century, the phrase disappears completely for four hundred years, emerging again in the middle of the nineteenth century, when written representations of non-standard, regional varieties of spoken English became more frequent and (perhaps) more faithful.

If this unscientific sentiment analysis of the new phrases at take v. leaves us with impressions of opportunism, disparagement, and dislike, tell v. (at 119 senses, a tiddler in comparison to take) seems to bring with it a sense of exasperation and resignation, with new entries for that’s telling me; now she tells me!; you tell me . . . ; tell me about it; and what did I tell you? Concern about the number of bees dying these days is widespread and familiar, but tell v. reveals a different story about the relationship between humans and this most useful of insects: to tell the bees when the owner of their hives had died was once considered essential if they were not to die themselves, leave the hive, or otherwise stop producing honey.

 Water bombs and weekly draws

Elsewhere in this update, you can check the numbers for this quarter’s draw at the newly revised entry for lottery n., where several newly added compounds shed light on the cultural history of the state-endorsed game of chance: while lottery funds and lottery money have been around since the seventeenth-century (the first government-run lottery in Britain was held in the 1560s), both lottery funding and lottery jackpots emerged within living memory, linguistic products of the last seventy-five years or so of hopeful ticket-buying.

Revision of words including water n. has produced a whole new entry to cover the four senses of water bomb. As well as the sense familiar to schoolchildren and grown-up practical jokers everywhere, this new entry reveals that this phrase was originally attached to a rather alarming-sounding device consisting of a wooden barrel or other water-filled vessel with a metal case filled with gunpowder at its centre, which was marketed as a fire-fighting device in the eighteenth-century. If you’re an Aquarius, you might (given your reputedly tireless thirst for knowledge) like to know that a byname for your titular constellation, the water carrier, has been added to OED for the first time. The original, literal use of this phrase – carrying drinking water – survives, of course, as an everyday fact of life for many. Two later figurative uses of water-carrier convey something of that thankless slog, but illustrate an unusually stark transatlantic split. While in the United States a water carrier is now usually a political lackey, in Britain, figurative use is confined to the football pitch, where it is applied to reliable but uninspired players, in a usage which owes its popularity to Eric Cantona’s widely reported comments about his hard-working countryman, Didier Deschamps.

Well, that’s your lot for another three months. What’s going to be in the next update? There’s no telling . . .

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