Stop the clock for the OED December 2020 update

Stop the clock for the OED December 2020 update

Welcome to this December update to the Oxford English Dictionary. After the unprecedented year documented in the Oxford Languages coronavirus updates and Words of the Year, we end 2020 with a more traditional OED quarterly release, which includes over 500 newly researched and edited entries and senses, alongside a similar number of fully revised and updated entries, drawn from across the history of English and its global varieties.

Among the oldest additions in this update is a sense of the verb follow, meaning specifically to pursue a person covertly, with the aim of watching what they are doing or keeping track of their movements; it was first recorded in the Old English West Saxon version of Luke’s Gospel in the early eleventh century, but managed to give the compilers of earlier editions of OED the slip. At the other end of the chronological spectrum is deliverology, apparently coined by British civil servants as a humorous, spuriously scientific sounding name for the process of successfully (or unsuccessfully) implementing policy and achieving goals in government. First recorded in 2007 in a book by former government adviser Sir Michael Barber (who describes it as a ‘terrible word’), it’s since gone on to be adopted in political contexts outside the UK.

This update travels through space as well as time, with additions from World English including shoe bite, an Indian English term for a sore area, blister, or abrasion caused by ill-fitting footwear, first recorded in the 1870s; black cake, a dark, rich, moist Caribbean cake typically flavoured with rum and served at Christmas or on other special occasions; Canadian politics gives us lob ball, a term for an easy question, especially one intended to make the person to whom it is addressed seem knowledgeable or competent (otherwise known as a softball question); and Philippine English contributes traffic, meaning held up or congested with slow-moving vehicles, an adjectiving of a noun (possibly after a Tagalog model) first recorded in 1997.

Also added this quarter is structural racism: discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within society or an institution. The action now commonly associated with protests against this, and with the Black Lives Matter movement during 2020, is another addition, as represented by the phrase to take a (also the) knee. Our entry shows that this phrase was used in 2017 with reference to the American footballer Colin Kaepernick and his silent protest during the playing of the national anthem, but that it has also denoted a long-established gesture of respect in more general contexts since 1960.

As ever with OED updates, the seemingly recent turns out to be older than you think. If you’ve encountered the word adulting—in the sense ‘the carrying out of the mundane or everyday tasks that are a necessary part of adult life’—the chances are that you’ve only come across it in the last ten years or so, when it became popular in social media posts. But both this noun and its verbal etymon adult have been around for a century or more, in senses referring to a process of maturing (1909) or bringing something (especially a child) to a state of maturity (1921).

Nineties flashback

Such gaps between a word’s coinage and its inclusion in the OED often simply reflect the time it takes for a piece of vocabulary to spread in usage and grow in significance. A word can taken ten, twenty, thirty years, or more, to have a significant impact on English, and this can be seen in the additions in this update whose origins were traced to the 1990s.

One of the earliest of these illustrates this process neatly: kompromat. A borrowing from Russian denoting compromising information used by espionage agents for blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating a person, our earliest English evidence is from 1990, but it was only in 2016, with speculation about Russian involvement in the American presidential election, and 2017, when a Russian politician alleged on TV that his government was holding such information on President Trump, that the word came to wide public attention.

If you are likely to be targeted by spies looking to compile kompromat, it’s important not to make their task easier by being an oversharer. Although the noun oversharing has been around since at least 1949 (in a sense relating to sharing bathrooms and properties with more people than is necessary or desirable), and the verb overshare since 1974 (‘to have more than the normal or expected share of something’) the most salient contemporary meaning of all four of these words – expressing the idea of divulging too much about one’s personal life – took off in the 1990s.

We’ll gloss (or possibly comb) over the jokey follically challenged, follicly challenged, and follicularly challenged, virtually identical euphemisms for ‘bald or balding’, and all, remarkably, recorded earliest in 1991, in periodicals in Britain, the U.S., and Canada respectively; clearly a linguistic meme that went viral before the world wide web.

The notion of a computer program which simulates human conversation may be as old as Alan Turing’s ‘imitation game’, but the phrase chatbot first occurs in 1994 when a Usenet poster appealed for suggestions on how to create their own ‘specialized Chat ‘Bot’, . . . which could say sit in a chat conference and when people come in, it would ask them questions, etc.’ As our entry shows, the (since widely realized) commercial possibilities of chatbots in providing customers with an online service experience were already recognized by a few companies by 1998.

Other nineties coinages in this update include dashcam from 1998; the boom in portable computing in this decade introduced us to the idea of the digital nomad in 1993; adorkable, a way to describe the endearingly socially awkward or unfashionable, was first found in a personals ad in the Los Angeles Times on Valentine’s Day, 1999; and also first recorded in this year was crybully, an alteration of ‘crybaby’, applied to a person who uses intimidating or abusive tactics against others, while claiming—especially after experiencing resistance or dissent—that they are themselves the victim of unfair or unreasonable treatment.

Tell it to the zhuzh

In the latest season of Netflix’s historical drama The Crown, Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales, says of her future husband Prince Charles’s new house that she’d like to ‘Zhuzh it up a bit; make it a bit less stuffy’—to make it more stylish, attractive, or exciting. The verb to zhuzh (or zhoosh, as our headword was then spelled) was first added to OED in 2005. This update sees that entry ‘zhuzhed up a bit’, and the addition of new entries for the noun zhuzh, and the adjective zhuzhy.

Our earliest evidence for the noun in the sense ‘Style, glamour; a stylish or glamorous appearance or effect’ comes from 1968 and the script of BBC radio comedy Round the Horne. Weekly sketches in which host Kenneth Horne paid a call on out-of-work actors Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) introduced mainstream British audiences to Polari, the secretive slang with a complex history which had by that stage become an argot for many of London’s gay men, and it is apparently in Polari that the zhuzh words make their first appearance. A 1970 glossary of ‘West End Homosexual Slang’ gives us our first quotation for the verb, while a 1968 Stage review (which also namechecks Round the Horne) describes a character as ‘a brilliant creation—a wild, zhooshy quean’.

While this early Polari context seems fairly secure, the ultimate origins of these zippy, buzzy little words are disputed: our new entries consider the competing etymological claims of a Romani word meaning ‘(to) clean’, and a South African slang use of ‘Jewish’ to mean ‘excellent, smart, attractive’, but ultimately finds neither wholly convincing.

On the clock

A full revision of the word clock has allowed us to document a rich history of idiomatic expressions which reflect the importance of mechanical clocks in shaping our experience of the world since the word itself (a borrowing from Anglo-Norman or Dutch) made its first appearance in English in the late fourteenth century.

The steady ticking and impassive ‘face’ of clocks with dials gives us one of the earliest of these phrases: as calm (or as cool) as a clock; still in occasional use today, our earliest evidence is from 1592, when playwright Thomas Lodge wrote that ‘A little kindnes maks him who was as hote as a tost as coole as a clock’. A version of the phrase even a stopped (or broken) clock is right twice a day is first recorded in 1711 in an issue of Joseph Addison’s Spectator, while it was Charles Dickens, in Little Dorrit, who first talked of futile attempts ‘to stop the clock of busy existence’ and to halt the inexorable passage of time.

Two evocative expressions made their debuts in American newspapers in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first is in an 1863 story about the filthy conditions in Milwaukee, where the ‘stink’ of hogs kept by the residents was ‘strong enough to stop a clock’; the second in an (ungenerous) observation from an Indiana newspaper in 1895 that, if Governor James P. Clarke of Arkansas was faithfully represented in the newspaper portraits accompanying stories of his attempts to stop a fight between boxing legends James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, then he had ‘a face that could stop a clock at midnight’, let alone a boxing match.

Elsewhere in this range, you can explore the surprisingly complex and mysterious history of the clockwork orange, from the archetype of extreme peculiarity, via Anthony Burgess’s depiction of an individual deprived of freedom of choice by social or behavioural conditioning, to the Glasgow Subway and its brightly coloured trains; and take a trip back to the late nineteenth century origins of the idea of a clockwork universe.

Well, that seems like as good a place as any to wind things up (sorry) this time. We hope to see you again in March for another quarterly update.

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.