Here’s the whole box and dice on the OED March 2021 update

Here’s the whole box and dice on the OED March 2021 update

Well ding-dong, it’s time for OED‘s quarterly update for March 2021, in which nearly 750 existing entries have been subjected to the freshening attentions of our team of researchers, editors, etymologists, and bibliographers, and over 700 new words, senses, phrases, and compounds have been added to the Dictionary. Buckle up, and we’ll take you from astraphobia, a fear of lightning or thunderstorms, to zip ties, and from chapsticks to champagne fountains.

From Scottish and Northern Irish English we have to go one’s dinger, meaning to do something vigorously or boisterously, or to lose one’s temper in a spectacular way. Australian and New Zealand English give us the somewhat mysterious Gentle Annie, a name for any steep hill or incline, and perhaps an ironic reference to a mid-nineteenth-century American popular song of that name; the whole box and dice, a phrase meaning ‘a group of things or people in its entirety, everything’; and (from Australia alone) a dingo’s breakfast, a humorous way of saying ‘no breakfast at all’, or referring to a set of very basic morning rituals in which breakfast is not included. South Asia gives us a new sense of abstain, meaning to absent oneself from work or school. Nigerian cookery offers chin-chin, a snack consisting of strips of deep-fried dough, typically served sweetened.From my own home county of Lancashire we have (from) clogs to clogs (in three generations), a gloomy assertion that a family that attains wealth in one generation will be back where it started by the third.

Before my own luck runs out, I’ll conclude my opening statement, and move on to look at a selection of new material in this update in a little more detail.

Image credit: John Taylor illustration

Seven minutes in…

As usual, the programme of comprehensive revision for existing OED entries has added many new senses and sub-entries for compounds and phrases not previously covered. Revision of box reveals that a troublesome person has been told to get back into their box since at least 1920, that box of ivories is a humorous slang term for the mouth first recorded in 1821, and that—in Britain at least—something broadcast on television has been said to be on the box since the early 1960s.

An overhaul of serve and related words has given us new entries for service animal and service dog. Service animal was first recorded in the 1880s to refer to animals used by the armed forces, emerging in the second half of the twentieth century in its now familiar sense of an animal trained to provide support to a person with additional needs. Service dog was first visible in a military context in 1917, and is recorded with reference to guide dogs from the 1930s.

Revision of seven, meanwhile, allows you to explore the linguistic history of the seven deadly sins (first mentioned by this name in the early thirteenth-century rule for women recluses, Ancrene Riwle), and the U.S. teenagers’ party game seven minutes in heaven, in which two participants are shut in a room or closet for seven minutes to, er, get to know one another better.

Other ranges revised in this update, all with their own new additions, include champagne, zip, ding, fresh, toy,and gentle.

Allyship, virtue signalling, and cancel culture

A recurring theme in these updates since the third edition of OED began to appear online in 2000 has been the growth in vocabulary which reflects an increasingly complex and nuanced understanding of human identities, and a concern with social injustice and inequality. This update is no exception, with new entries for visible minority, transphobe, and for allyship and ally in the sense ‘a person or organization that supports the rights of a marginalized group’, our first evidence for which is a 1970 quotation from Jet magazine referencing white allies of the black community, and now often used with reference to support for minority groups defined by their sexual or gender identity.

Some more recent coinages reflect a cultural friction arising, in part, from the shift in public discourse beyond traditional media institutions. Cancel culture, virtue signalling, virtue signal, and virtue signaller have gained currency so quickly (all have appeared within the last five to seven years) due to wide public engagement on an array of digital platforms, online forums, and social media, where the ability to express polarized views and ideas is seen by some as a welcome democratization, and by others as a disruptive influence.  

The perception that the internet provides a space in which some people feel comfortable expressing controversial views and ideas or confronting others in a way they might avoid in face-to-face encounters is not itself as new as some of these latest additions. This update also includes the term keyboard warrior, used to refer to a person behaving aggressively or abusively online. Given fresh life by debates on new social media platforms, this insult is already visible on Usenet forums in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Body shaming, pay gaps, and #MeToo

Newly researched and defined in this update are fat-shaming, body-shaming, and related terms reflecting greater awareness of the negative impact of beauty standards and the valuing of particular body shapes over others. The majority of these terms became visible (or more visible) in 2009/2010, but body-shaming (both as noun and adjective), and the contrary, affirmative expressions body-positive and body-positivity have origins in the late 1980s and the 1990s. This latter time period also gives us the concept of negging. Recorded earliest in the sense of rejecting or reacting in a negative way, its most salient sense emerges at the end of the 1990s, as men identifying as ‘pickup artists’ began to take to Usenet ‘seduction’ forums to share their strategy for undermining, ignoring, or insulting a prospective sexual partner (typically a woman), in the belief diminished self-confidence would make a person treated in this way more receptive to their advances.

Growing concern about various kinds of economic inequality are on show in new entries for gig economy and pay gap. Discussion of the so-called gig economy under that name is first recorded in 2009, when the phenomenon itself is described as having ‘been old news for years’. Although pay gaps between any sector of the population and another are referred to by this term, the earliest evidence we’ve found is in a 1948 discussion of that between the pay of women and men, otherwise known as the gender pay gap (itself first recorded in 1984). Another kind of financial disadvantage for women is denoted by the phrase pink tax, an inordinate price mark-up on services and products marketed to or more likely to be bought by women as opposed to men. A borrowing from the French taxe rose, it’s recorded earlier with reference to a similar mark-up affecting gay men, perceived as a tax on their sexual identity.

Me-too has been a headword in OED since an entry dealing with political copycatting  appeared in the Supplement to the dictionary published in 1976. On revision as a third edition entry in 2001, it gained a new sense relating to near imitations of existing, successful commercial products (especially drugs). This update adds another new and unrelated sense which has achieved greater prominence than either of its OED predecessors. In the last few years, this phrase has been repurposed by a global advocacy movement seeking to expose and prevent sexual harassment and assault, especially against women, by raising awareness and holding perpetrators to account publicly. These survivors’ stories have been shared on social media with the hashtag #MeToo since 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano asked that women who had suffered sexual assault and harassment reply to her tweet with the words ‘me too’, but the phrase was first used in this context a decade earlier by American activist Tarana Burke.

Hindsight on 2020

A year of life under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic is reflected in new senses of bubble to refer to a group consisting of a restricted number of people who have a close relationship or regular social contact, which has recently gained specific significance due to public health measures. What has become ‘the new normal’ has also given us a new entry for face shield, first recorded as being on sale (perhaps as a protection against the sun) alongside umbrellas and parasols in a Georgia newspaper in the 1840s. Essential worker (first recorded in 1855 but emerging in something like its current sense in the middle of the last century) and stimulus package (first found in 1975, in U.S. context) have also gained added or more urgent significance in 2020 and the start of this year.

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.