So, it’s the OED update, obvs

So, it’s the OED update, obvs

‘So, it’s time for the latest update to OED, including lots of new words and senses.’

‘You’d better be doing that because the update includes the use of so at the start of a response to a question or an inferred question . . . ‘

‘I don’t like your linguistic prescriptivist tone. But, yes, that is why I’m doing it.’

‘It’s not the use of the word I object to so much as this gimmicky approach. But I am intrigued: how long’s that been around?’

‘So, the earliest our researchers and editors have found—’


‘. . . is a 1999 example in a discussion of artificial intelligence transcribed from an ABC News programme. Although sometimes regarded as mere filler buying time for the speaker, it’s often used as a discourse marker to manage the flow of conversation.’

‘Now you’ve got that out of your system, how about a course correction to something more conventional?’

‘If you insist.’

Opening gambits

To ballpark or broad-brush it, this quarter’s update contains nearly 700 new senses and entries, the meanings of which have been defined, and whose origins, history, and patterns of usage have been fully researched. Items related to our revision of major entries such as half, staff, and block provide the majority of our new additions, but we’ve also expanded our coverage across the whole of the dictionary, from aestel to Volkssport.

Additions this quarter include porch pirate, a person who steals parcels that have been delivered and left unattended outside the intended recipient’s home, first recorded in a 2007 transcript of a local news broadcast from Oklahoma. The advent of electronically trackable orders and deliveries over the last decade and a half has probably made such thefts more obvious, but the adjective trackable itself has been around for over 150 years; our lexicographers have traced it back to at least 1867, when it was used of footprints in grass in the report of a murder case in the Sydney Morning Herald.

CODA, an acronym of Children of Deaf Adults, a support organization formed in 1983, is now used to denote a person with one or more deaf or hard of hearing parents. First used in this sense in 1991, it was popularized as the title of Sian Heder’s 2021 multi award-winning comedy drama film. Our entry’s last quotation is from actor Tony Kotsur, who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his work in the film, becoming the first man who is deaf to win an Academy Award.

The mononym—a one-word name by which someone is known—is a familiar feature of the celebrity culture of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Our new entry namechecks some notable examples such as Elvis, Adele, and Pele among others, but the celebrity of whom this word was first used is probably less familiar: the French actress and model known as Capucine was described being ‘as crystalline and icy as her elegant mononym’ in a review in the New York Times in 1962.

No half measures

The childish halfsies and pinkie promise (or pinkie swear) also make their OED debut this quarter. The former was recorded first in the 1920s, with to go halfsies arriving in the 1940s and the adverbial use in the 1960s. The latter, names for a promise or oath made while linking little fingers with another person, are first seen in American local and high school newspapers at the end of the 1980s.

The wider revision of half and related items has also involved adding several new senses of halfling, including the use in fantasy fiction to refer to members of an imaginary race of small people, popularized by J. R. R. Tolkien as the name given to hobbits by the other peoples of Middle Earth, and first recorded in a 1940s draft by Tolkien of a passage which later appeared in the The Two Towers.

A daft apeth is, in the language of northern England, a foolish or silly person, and apeth itself is a reduced form of halfpennyworth, meaning a small or negligible amount of something. Our first example, from a work of 1862 on the dialect of Leeds, shows ‘a clownish, ridiculous person’ being dismissed as ‘nobbut a hauaporth!’ (no more than a halfpennyworth).

The overhaul of halfpenny as part of this update gives us a new entry for the slang phrase to keep one’s hand on one’s halfpenny, meaning to refrain from sexual activity or retain one’s virginity. Although it sounds like it might first have occurred in My Secret Life or a similar piece of underground Victorian erotica, this British expression is apparently relatively new, with our earliest evidence coming from a 1970 police procedural novel set in a seaside town.

Staying below the belt briefly, the originally U.S. English term for the penis (or, occasionally, a stupid, annoying, or otherwise objectionable person), tallywacker, makes its OED debut this quarter. Although our earliest evidence is from 1925, our etymology assumes it is derived from a much older term, tallywag, also used for ‘penis’ but first seen from the late seventeenth century as a plural referring to the testicles.

Texting Captain Obvious

Over the past quarter-century OED has added many abbreviations and other items which might be described as textspeak (or txt spk), and now that term has its own entry. Although later typically used of distinctive orthographic conventions and abbreviations of text messaging, it was first recorded in 1996 in a reference to the lack of a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end of a URL: ‘This is Internet language, the text-speak of the new electronic communications. Get used to it. It’s here to stay.’

The adverb obvs seems to have started life (as a graphic abbreviation for obviously) at least five years before textspeak itself, and the earliest evidence our researchers and editors have found is in a Usenet newsgroup from 1991. Since then it’s established itself in both written (or tapped) language and in speech, where it’s typically shortened even further, and is pronounced /ɒvz/ or /ɑvz/. Sticking with the plainly apparent, Captain Obvious, used as a sarcastic or disparaging name for someone who points out what is clear to everyone, appears to have been first used in a piece of U.S. teen fiction in 1990.

Name your sources

As usual, evidence for our new entries this update come from a wide range of written sources, including newspapers, books and academic journals, and social media. Tailgate parties—at which drinks and food are served from the open tailgate of a car, truck, or other motor vehicle, typically held in the parking lot of a sports stadium before an event such as a football game—have been known by that name since 1958, when a fashion column in a Louisiana newspaper described a wool ‘stadium coat’ as ‘the college man’s best friend‥. It sees him through football games and station-wagon tailgate parties.’ The modern maxim (if) you snooze, you lose, an exhortation to remain alert and act swiftly if you don’t want to miss an advantage or opportunity, is recorded earliest as the headline of an advertisement for an Iowa used car dealership in 1950. The crash diet and its associated verb also make their first appearance in American newspaper reports of the 1950s. Dapping, greeting someone with a casual gesture typically involving slapping palms, bumping fists, or snapping fingers, and the related verb to dap, both chiefly found in African-American usage, have been around since 1971, when a report from Vietnam in the Albuquerque Journal noted its popularity with black GIs and its association with the Black Power movement.

From more academic sources, the adjective performative, used to describe action or speech which is done for effect or the sake of appearance rather than with sincere intent, appears to have been first used in this sense in an academic book on women’s writing and feminist theory. The idea of processing a complex emotion or difficult personal situation until one understands or accepts it goes back to at least 1973, in a collection of essays on the development and definitions of values in educational contexts. Parasocial was coined—and this is one of those relatively rare examples where we can be reasonably certain who first used a neologism—in 1956 by American Sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe a sense of false intimacy felt by a someone towards a celebrity or other prominent figure.

Twitter provides us with our first example of shithousery meaning anything regarded as despicable, unacceptable, or bad, but in the context of a football match it refers to disruptive or underhand tactics used to secure an unfair advantage for one’s team. First seen on Twitter in 2009 with depreciative reference to TV talent shows, our last quotation, from the Guardian, describes a refusal ‘to return the ball with the required speed and decency’ as ‘classic shithousery in stoppage time‘.

Signs of the times

The word superyacht is now chiefly used to refer to a vessel of at least 24 metres in length, but is often used of much larger vessels, the extravagantly luxurious floating playgrounds of celebrities and the super-rich. Our latest evidence refers to a yacht that ‘has two helipads, berths for more than 130 people and a 25-meter swimming pool that itself can accommodate another superyacht’, while our earliest evidence (in the more general sense ‘an exceptionally large or powerful yacht’) dates back to 1912 (not an auspicious year for large boats).

The small, countertop convection ovens known as air fryers have come to prominence only over the last decade or so, originally marketed as a healthier alternative to the frying pan and touted more recently as an energy-saving alternative to the conventional electric oven. Despite this relatively recent success story, the name itself is first recorded in a U.S. patent for a small convection oven filed in 1989.

Our continuing attempts to find ways to mitigate our environmental impact are reflected in new entries for plastic-free, keep cup, and agrivoltaics (the simultaneous use of an area of land for farming and for electricity generation using solar panels). Although now chiefly associated with attempts to reduce plastic use and pollution, plastic-free is first recorded in 1971 in a piece on the use of metals and plastics in American car production that predicted ‘you’ll never see an all-metal, plastic-free production car out of Detroit again’. Keep cup first appeared in Australia in 2009, though this term for a reusable cup—especially an insulated one used when purchasing coffee and other hot drinks—is not commonly used in North America. Agrivoltaics and its associated adjective agrivoltaic are also relative newbies first recorded in Australia, in reports from a conference on ‘conservation agriculture’ in Brisbane in 2011.  

Complete revision of our entries for the words slave, slavery, and related terms have resulted in the drafting of a new entry for modern slavery, defined as the ‘present-day exploitation of human beings for profit…characterized by abusive and usually illegal practices such as people trafficking, enforced labour and sexual exploitation, debt bondage, and coercion of workers’, with evidence for this distinctive sense traced back to 1990 (although earlier, less fixed instances of modern modifying slavery can be found).

Continuing on from our work on the vocabulary of the coronavirus pandemic, OED’s treatment of the language of vaccination has been boosted, a verb first used with reference to the administration of an additional dose of a vaccine in a 1959 article in the British Medical Journal on the effectiveness of a polio vaccine, and jag, a Scottish word often used—like the more general British English jab—to denote a vaccination.

Who’s left?

An OED update is—unless you’re resistant to the very idea of linguistic change and innovation—nothing like a horror film. But if this were a lexicographical slasher, there’d probably be only one item left standing, and this time it would have to be final girl, a name for a smart, cautious female stock character who survives to defeat or evade the killers when everyone else has perished.

But don’t have nightmares. We’ll be back—pinkie swear—next time with yet more new additions to the historical English dictionary.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.