A little birdie told us that it’s time for the OED December 2021 update

A little birdie told us that it’s time for the OED December 2021 update

If there’s a new quarterly update from OED, there must be new entries and new senses to explore. And there are: around 750 of them, and almost as many fully revised entries.

Revision of words beginning archaeo-means that all things ancient are well represented, including archaeobotany, archaeogenetics, and archaeolatry—worship of or reverence for antiquity.

When revising bird and related entries, our researchers and editors found clear use of the phrase the birds and the bees, referring euphemistically to basic facts about human sexuality and reproduction, from the early 1940s (in the Washington Post), though these early uses imply a certain knowing familiarity which suggests that it had already been around for a while by that time. Watch the birdie has been used as an injunction to photographer’s subjects to stay still and look at the camera since 1911 (when the person behind the lens still often held up an object for sitters to focus on). Moving on to the world of the moving image, it’s from only five years later that we found our first evidence for lights, camera, action! in a description of work on a film set from Motion Picture Classic magazine.

The light and the dark

Revision of words beginning light and dark make for some interesting phrases and compounds. Lightning never strikes twice has been used at least since the 1840s, when an American lottery winner resolved not to buy another ticket again on the basis of this scientifically inaccurate axiom. References to the dark side, used figuratively to refer to an aspect or way of life viewed as shadowy, sinister, or nefarious, now often allude to one of the two competing aspects of the Force in the Star Wars universe, but the earliest piece of evidence in our new entry is more general, predating the release of Star Wars by two years, and is from a 1975 short story by Canadian writer and translator Joyce Marshall.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn says the old proverb, the history and variants of which are illustrated in OED for the first time in this update, although the word itself dates back to Thomas Fuller’s memorably titled 1650 Pisgah-sight of Palestine. Meanwhile therking, a name for the period between daylight and darkness (either in the morning or the evening) is one of the oldest items in this update, and first occurs in an Old English–Latin glossary from the first half of the eleventh century.

The original and the obsolete

As usual for an OED update, the revision of existing entries has turned up some unexpected earlier, obsolete uses of more-or-less familiar terms. The word birdwatcher was first used to refer, not to an ornithologist who watches birds for pleasure, but to a Roman augur who divined the future by means of the flight and cries of birds, in the notes to an early eighteenth-century edition of Horace’s Odes. The word dipstick originally referred not to an object, but a person, especially an excise officer, who checked the capacity of casks or barrels using a gauging rod (or, as we might now call it, a dipstick); this sense is first recorded in 1804 as a nickname for such a person. Conversely, the phrase leading light, now usually a way of referring to a person prominent in a particular field or sphere, was in the seventeenth century used to refer to a light by which a person was guided through darkness.

The pandemic and the new normal

Lateral flow has been used to designate devices which use capillary flow in order to screen fluids for a given substance since 1989, although most of us will only have encountered the term in the context of rapid testing for Covid-19 in the past twelve months. Hybrid working and hybrid learning are two other expressions which have become increasingly prominent during the pandemic and the gradual return to offices and other workplaces, and this quarter sees the addition of a new sense of the adjective hybrid to designate flexible models for working or learning. Although now primarily associated with the use of communication and collaboration software, our first quotation, from China Business Review in 1996, refers to ‘hybrid teaching approach’ involving ‘both on-site classroom lectures by professors and real-time, interactive televised lectures.’

The non-fungible and the corporate

The adjective non-fungible, which barely registered in our corpora a few years ago, has seen a huge uptick in use over the past two or three years thanks to non-fungible token, a unit of data that certifies a digital asset, such as a piece of digital art, as unique and provides proof of ownership, which is stored using blockchain technology and traded online using cryptocurrency. This update includes a new entry for non-fungible, meaning ‘that is not interchangeable or replaceable’, especially in commercial and contractual terms, apparently first used in a legal textbook published in 1882—in which, chillingly, ‘horses, slaves, and so forth’ are offered as examples of non-fungible commodities. Our first evidence for non-fungible token (and for its initialism NFT) comes from 2017. If the reference to ‘blockchain technology’ in the above definition left you scratching your head, you’ll find answers in a new entry for blockchain, a sequence of verifiable and virtually unalterable digital records linked using cryptography, distributed and managed in a peer-to-peer network, and used especially as a secure record of transactions by cryptocurrencies, apparently first referred to by this name in 2011.

With any luck this digital data overload hasn’t prompted you to experience a minor techlash, although this is a term now usually reserved for a reaction against the influence of big technology and social media companies rather than a reaction against computers and digital technology per se. And it’s not just tech companies: revision of corporation and related words has revealed increasingly negative connotations in use of the words corporate and corporatism, partly in relation to the notion that corporate entities tend to pursue profit above all else, and partly through association with bland commercialism and lack of individuality and creativity.

The political and the personal

Moving away from the commercial to more obviously political aspects of twenty-first century life, this update also includes new entries for white privilege, our current earliest evidence for which comes from the pages of the British Daily Telegraph, in a 1921 discussion of racial tensions in the southern states of the U.S.; cultural Marxism, a term first used in the quarterly magazine of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists in 1938 to denounce the ‘toleration-psychosis of liberalism’ and ‘the bolshevisation of the mind’ which the writer believed to be inherent in, and leading to the downfall of, social democracy; and police brutality, first referred to by that name in the London True Sun in 1833.

Contemporary interactions with questions of gender and sexuality are represented by new entries for the adjectives transfeminine, first found in TV–TS Tapestry magazine in 1985, and transmasculine, recorded earliest in Village Voice in 1999. Elsewhere we have new entries for conversion therapy, used in its familiar sense since 1973; and detransition, apparently not recorded before 2004, when it appeared in the regular Transmissions column of San Francisco LGBT newspaper the Bay Area Reporter.

Eating for comfort and drinking too much

Fittingly for an update which also includes the full revision of the various homonyms of chip and related words, this quarter’s additions include comfort eating and comfort eater, both from the few years around 1970, and the verb comfort eat, first seen in the mid 1980s. Among the light bites on offer in this update are crunchy, salted corn chips (not as often kettle-cooked as their potato counterparts), while sweeter and more substantial fare is on offer in the form of bird’s nest pudding, a baked pie or pudding containing whole apples or other fruit arranged to resemble eggs in a nest, particularly associated with New England, and first recorded in a book of recipes and household economy from 1829. Whatever you’re eating, resist the temptation to dine-and-dash—leaving a restaurant without paying. Originally an American expression, it’s a phenomenon familiar to many law-abiding internet users thanks footage of the arrest of an eloquent dine-and-dasher trying to make away after enjoying ‘a succulent Chinese meal’ in Brisbane in the 1990s, which became one of Australia’s most viral videos when it resurfaced in 2009.

This update includes two colourful expressions for being or becoming (very) drunk: the Australian phrase to write oneself off relies on earlier use of to write off in British and Australian English (it was originally First World War air force slang) to mean to irreparably damage something. More enigmatic is (to get) trousered, apparently popularized by Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, and a feature of mainly British and Irish English since the 1970s.

Lit and over it

Slang use of the adjective lit to mean intoxicated by drink or drugs has been covered in OED for some time, and our revised entry includes a new first quotation from 1912, as well as a new sense meaning ‘amazing, impressive, exciting’. We’ve traced this more recent sense back to 2009, in a twitter quotation referring to an obviously marvellous party, but have reason to believe earlier evidence is out there—and we are always happy to receive earlier examples of items we’ve covered via our antedatings form, or on Twitter using the hashtag #OEDAntedatings.  Another slang item added this quarter is somewhat earlier than you might expect: our first quotation for a new sense of the preposition over, meaning to be weary of or no longer wanting to deal with something, especially an ongoing situation, comes from American magazine Newsweek in 1974.

Right, not that we’re over it—we’re definitely not—it’s just time for us to go dark for a few months, at least on the updates front. But we’ll be back in March with more fully revised entries and more newly added entries and senses. You can take a look at the full list of newly added material here—you’ll find that quite a lot that had to end up on the cutting room floor in writing this—and an update on our recent work on the Historical Thesaurus here.

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.