From pirates to plant-based: the OED June 2020 update

From pirates to plant-based: the OED June 2020 update

The June 2020 update to OED arrives in strange times, but if new words and new OED entries are what you’re looking for (and why else would you be here?), we have hordes of the things for you. As always, we have tried to bring our A-game to documenting and explaining the histories of around 500 new entries and senses, and I’m ready to take you—more or less at full tilt—through some of them. Alphabetical ranges of entries revised in this update include edit and edition, farm, garbage and garble, hysteria, slob, spirit, and vote, but as usual, we’ve also been drafting and adding to entries from right across the dictionary. 

We have words from palaeontology, with the nickname of the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain, Cheddar Man (found in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge, in 1903, but first referred to by this name in 1914); from zoology, with ambystomatid, a member of the family of mole salamanders; and from atmospheric chemistry, with Dobson unit, used for measuring the amount of a trace gas in a vertical column of the atmosphere, most closely associated with monitoring of the earth’s ozone layer.

In etymological terms, this update includes borrowings into English from Persian and Mongolian in ordu, the portable encampment of a nomadic group, or its inhabitants; from German in alkannin, not the name of Luke Skywalker’s father, but rather of a red food colouring derived from the roots of plants in the borage family (a word borrowed from German in the nineteenth century, but ultimately related via post-classical Latin to the Arabic for ‘henna’); from Gujarati in garba and raas garba, types of traditional circle dance; and from Welsh in an entry for hiraeth, a deep yearning or nostalgia for a person or thing which is absent or lost, recorded first in English in 1860 in John Owen’s translation of the song Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the national anthem of Wales, to which Owen also gave its usual English title, Land of my Fathers. (Hiraeth is often used to refer specifically to feelings of homesickness, an expression of topophilia for the place we know best when we’re away from it.)

You can discover that an attractive older gentleman has been known as a silver fox since the 1950s (although in early use it is recorded only as a nickname for specific people); LOL has been used as a verb since 1997, when a Usenet newsgroup post on ‘The linguistics of computer communication’ quotes the words ‘I lolled and lolled… I couldn’t stop lolling’ as an example of the verbing of the by-then familiar initialism used as an expression of amusement; Farmer Giles has been an archetypal English rustic since 1770, and has been used as rhyming slang for an uncomfortable medical complaint since 1955; and the geopolitical concept of Atlanticism (advocacy of military, economic, and political cooperation between Europe and North America) has been espoused by Atlanticists since the late 1940s and early 1950s. (On the other hand, references to the Anglosphere of English-speaking countries, especially those with a shared historical and cultural heritage, have been traced back only as far as 1995.)

Right, time for some more in-depth analysis. And where better to start, than cake?

Lockdown baking, reduced meat diets, and farm foods

The flurry of home baking prompted by widespread stay-at-home measures imposed in the face of the coronavirus epidemic ensured that one of our new additions became almost inescapable on Twitter earlier this year. The banana bread being shown off alongside sourdough loaves by those with time on their hands and an uninterrupted flour supply is, of course, sweet (and, if you’re lucky, moist) cake flavoured with mashed ripe bananas. OED‘s earliest citations for this phrase, though, are references to bread made from flour ground from green, dried banana—once a common staple and cheaper alternative to wheat flour in some parts of the world, especially West Africa and Jamaica. Recipes for the more familiar, sweet kind of banana bread start to become noticeable in American periodicals from the 1930s, and in British and Irish contexts from the 1950s onwards.

Looking further back, in Britain at least, 2019 (remember that?) was, arguably, the year in which plant-based alternatives to meat, and the hunt for the perfect meat-free burger went mainstream. A new entry traces references to plant-based foods and diets back to the early 1970s, with a 1976 quotation observing presciently that ‘the proportion of plant-based meat substitutes…is likely to increase’. As noted at this sense, although the phrase is now often used synonymously with ‘vegetarian’ or—now especially—‘vegan’, it is also increasingly used in contexts in which people are trying to reduce the amount of meat and other animal products in their diet, rather than to eliminate them entirely.

Dairy-free alternatives to milk have been rising in popularity over the last few years, and this update to OED sees an entry for oat milk join our existing entries for almond, soy, and rice milk. Familiar now as an industrially-produced alternative to dairy products, our earliest evidence for this cereal-based milk-substitute comes from the middle of the nineteenth century, in an 1844 piece in a satirical newspaper reporting a suggestion from a ‘Ham philosopher’ to Queen Victoria that as ‘the great cause of original sin lay in eating animal [based] food’, all babies should not be breastfed, but should instead be given wheat or oat milk, ‘a pure vegetable substance’.

Contemporary concerns (at least in the affluent West) about the origins and processing of, and distance travelled by, our food are also on show at farm to table, now typically used to refer to fresh, locally-sourced food that has undergone minimal processing. An earlier version of this consumer uneasiness about food in an era of increasing industrialization of production was addressed (or perhaps exploited) by the American copywriters who started to work the reassuring term farm-fresh into their advertisements for butter in the early 1920s. It’s around this time, also, that farm shops and farm markets selling farm produce direct to consumers start to be referenced on either side of the Atlantic.

Voting right?

2020 is an important election year in the U.S., in New Zealand, and in several other countries around the world. This update includes a full revision of OED‘s entries for vote and related words, following on from the publication of revised entries for suffrage last year. Among the new additions to these entries are a cluster of compounds relating to anxiety about the transparency and security of elections. These include vote buying (our earliest evidence is from 1810 with reference to the purchase of votes for ‘grog’—a practice otherwise known as quillingin an Ohio newspaper). However, we’ve only talked about vote fraud since 1904 (when it was recorded first in the New York Times) and voter fraud since 1936 (this time in the Washington Post, reporting on claims of a fraudulent registration of over 60,000 names in a gubernatorial race in Missouri), while the phrase voter ID was first used in 1956 in an Illinois newspaper. This awareness or assumption of electoral abuse has been satirized since 1856 with the darkly humorous phrase vote early, and (vote) often.

Elsewhere in the vote range we have a new entry for vote-a-rama, used first in the 1950s to refer to an event held with the aim of registering as many people as possible to vote, but now used more often to describe a rapid-fire voting session in the U.S. Senate designed to deal quickly with outstanding amendments to a budget resolution.

Bulldogs, bust-ups, and beating the buzzer

Revision of the slob and slobber range includes a number of new senses and entries. Two of the most striking—and most satisfying to say aloud—are slobberhannes and slobberknocker. The first of these made its way into the 1986 Supplement to the OED as the name of a card game in which the aim of the game is (largely) to avoid taking points. As well as revising that sense, we’ve also added another which nods to the likely origins of the game’s unusual name in a German nickname for an untidy person or a messy eater. Versions of this nickname applied to people only appear in English from around sixty years after our first mention of the card game, in U.S. regional use. Our last quotation, taken from Twitter, doesn’t refer to a person, but is a touching tribute to a much-missed pet bulldog from 2016: Gus, we are told was a ‘crazy man, huffer & puffer, slobberhans, [and] loved cheeseburgers’. Rest in peace, Gus.

Slobberknocker, meanwhile, is a piece of sporting slang. It has been used in the US since the 1980s: both as a colourful way to describe a particularly aggressive or hard-fought encounter on the field, ring, or racetrack, and to denote a collision or blow between players — one so violent that it might be imagined to send a participant’s saliva flying. From the 1960s onwards, it’s also recorded referring to a particularly aggressive player.

Another piece of (originally U.S.) sporting slang added in this update is buzzer-beater, a shot made in the last moment of a period of play in basketball, especially one made at the very end of a game which secures victory for the shooter’s team. Our new entry also covers the more recent, general sense referring to anything done at the last possible moment before the expiration of a deadline; something to aim at next time with these release notes . . .

Rrrr marks the spot

And finally, two entries added in this update show the subtle differences in associations that two closely related and almost identical (but for a single repeated letter) short words can have.

The word ar is used chiefly in representations of rural English speech, for a range of emotions and responses, but especially agreement or assent. Our earliest evidence for it is from a 1905 attempt by Hilaire Belloc to render the local speech of the South Downs. The word arr on the other hand, as everyone knows, is used exclusively by pirates. Proper pirates, with parrots, and cutlasses, and wooden legs. The sight or sound of those three letters (with any number of reduplicated R’s) is enough to make most of us fear that we’re going to be made to walk the plank. It must always have been so, mustn’t it? It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that our first quotation comes from a cartoon by Will Spencer in the Daily Mail‘s ‘Animal Crackers’ series in 1966, showing a swordfish in a pirate’s knotted bandana and eyepatch, greeting a smaller swordfish with the words ‘Arrr . . . Jim Lad!’

As the entry notes, this multi-purpose piece of piratical lingo (used to express approval, triumph, warning, or as a mere filler) has long been associated with the actor Robert Newton, and his eye-rolling, West Country-accented performances as Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island and its film and television sequels. No sign of Newton’s arrrrrrrrrrs have been traced in the script of the film, however, and they seem likely to have been his own addition to the part. (If a version of Long John Silver seems a somewhat unusual origin story for an OED entry, it’s worth remembering that Long John was himself a version of a writer of dictionaries: Robert Louis Stevenson based the charismatic sea cook on his friend the Victorian poet, critic, editor, amputee, and lexicographer of slang, W. E. Henley.)

Hopefully, this is more than enough for you to be getting on with, and we’ll have more word histories to unfathom in three months’ time. In the meantime, please look after yourselves.

Image by Whitney Wright on Unsplash

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