Content warning: may contain notes on the OED March 2022 update

Content warning: may contain notes on the OED March 2022 update

This update contains nearly 700 words, senses, and phrases which have been researched, defined, and included in OED for the first time, from absolute threshold to ydraw. Absolute threshold, the level or point at which a stimulus—such as sound, touch, or smell—reaches sufficient intensity to become consciously perceptible, is a loan translation of a German phrase, first used in English in 1892. Ydraw is a verb obsolete since the fifteenth century and first recorded in Old English with reference to the sweeping of the hem of a garment.

More recent linguistic developments covered in this update include burner phone, an inexpensive prepaid mobile phone, especially one used for a short time and then destroyed or discarded to protect the owner’s anonymity, first recorded in a 1996 song by rapper Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and the shortened burner in the same sense, first seen from 2002.

A trigger warning, a warning before a piece of writing or other content that may cause distress, especially by reviving upsetting memories in people who have experienced trauma, is first recorded in a 1993 Usenet newsgroup for survivors of abuse. Content warning, also added in this update, is now often used in the same sense, but its other current sense—denoting a notice accompanying a film, video game, or written publication, warning that it contains material potentially offensive to some audiences or unsuitable for children—is earlier, with evidence stretching back to 1977.

Last year, prompted by the election of US Vice President Kamala Harris, and discussion of the role of her husband, Doug Emhoff, we added the phrase second gentleman to refer to the husband of a vice president of deputy leader of a nation or state (and its counterpart, second lady). This time, we’re adding first gentleman, now chiefly used to refer to the husband or male partner of a president or other leader (a sense first recorded in 1924, in reference to the husband of Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson, who took office as Governor of Texas the following year). An earlier more general sense for a man preeminent in a particular situation or activity shows use stretching back to 1584.

Existing entries, new additions

As usual, our ongoing revision of entries across the dictionary contributes the lion’s share of our new material. Updated versions of celtic and related words give us new entries for Celtic knot, Celtic harp, and Celtic studies, and new senses covering the use of the adjective to designate myths and legends, music, Christianity, and decorative motifs regarded as distinctively Celtic.

Revision of cowboy and cowgirl supplies us with cowboy caviar (either the testicles of an animal, eaten as a delicacy, or, more appealingly, a dish containing beans) and cowboy coffee (strong black coffee prepared by boiling grounds); the first of these is a late entry to cowboy lore, dating back only to 1984, but the latter is first recorded in 1915. Cowboy also includes newly drafted treatments of cowboy country and cowboy hatted, while cowgirl gives us cowgirl boot (1925) and cowgirl hat (1897). More allusive (and adult) use is covered in main senses at cowgirl and reverse cowgirl in reverse, both found earliest in a 1993 book on ‘the making of an X-rated video’.

Our entry for dinosaur has also been fully revised, and with Laura Dern and Sam Neill set to return to cinema screens as Dr Ellie Sattler and Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic World: Dominion later this year, a new OED entry for dinosaur hunter makes a timely appearance. Our earliest evidence for this humorous or sensational name for a palaeontologist is from a 1902 volume of the Proceedings of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society. Another addition, dinosaur rock, shows the word’s metaphorical use applied to outdated or unimaginative rock music.

Revision of the combining form anti- contributes over 100 new items to this batch. These newly added oppositional and preventative combinations range alphabetically from anti-ageing to anti-wrinkle (other uses which play on our anxieties about appearance and personal hygiene include anti-dandruff and anti-sweat); include both anti-medieval and anti-modernism; and span outlooks and positions as diverse as anti-elitism, anti-sexism, antiscientism, anti-governmental, and anti-evolution. Other preventatives include anti-mosquito, anti-splash, anti-nausea, and anti-spam.

A shot in the arm?

Anti-vaccine also makes its first appearance in OED among the new anti– additions, and elsewhere in the range the influence of the pandemic (which made vax Oxford Languages word of the year in 2021) is detectable in new entries for vaccinology and vaccinologist. The noun vax is recorded in the graphical abbreviation vacc. from 1944, and as vax from 1983, while vax as a verb makes its appearance in 2006 (though the adjective vaxxed was first used a couple of years earlier).  

Vaccine hesitancy and vaccine hesitant, made familiar to many in 2021, also date from the mid 2000s, and occur first in reference to parents unsure about allowing their children to be vaccinated. Vaccine passport, another expression many of us have only learned over the past couple of eventful years, is first recorded in 2009. Another item made more salient in our ongoing battle with SARS-CoV-2, PCR test, also has a significant pre-Covid history, with our first quotation referring to testing of people with HIV in 1988.

Contemporary themes

The pandemic isn’t the only contemporary big issue to make its appearance in this update. Current concerns about climate change are reflected in a new sense for the verb decarbonize, meaning ‘to eliminate or reduce the fossil fuel use of (an economy, business sector, etc.), so as to reduce carbon dioxide emissions’, first used in 1991.

Our increasingly nuanced interaction with ideas of sexuality and gender are represented in this update by new entries for the adjective gender-affirming, now usually used to describe steps in a person’s gender transition, but first used in a more general sense in 1980, and demisexual, a term referring to a person who only develops sexual feelings and attraction within the context of a close emotional relationship, and who does not experience such feelings on the basis of first impressions or physical characteristics, recorded in this sense as a noun from 2006 and an adjective the following year. Gender critical, now chiefly used to refer to critical attitudes to the idea of gender identity, or to views which see gender identity as outweighed by biological sex, was first used (in 1988) to refer to criticism of traditional beliefs about gender. 

Society’s ongoing negotiation with race and racism are also visible in this update. Critical race theory is a term originating in American jurisprudence (our first evidence is from 1989) but now used more generally to denote a movement or theoretical approach which holds that racial bias is inherent or influential in social and cultural institutions and practices. Ironic use of the term (great) white saviour (a white person who helps black or other non-white people, esp. for reasons viewed as ultimately self-serving, such as seeking recognition or assuaging guilt) dates back to at least 1961, when it was used in a piece in the African-American newspaper the New York Amsterdam News.

A few choice phrases

A new phrase entry in shoulder examines the use of to stand on the shoulders of giants to refer to the process of building on the discoveries and achievements of great predecessors, first recorded in the early seventeenth century in a variation on the proverb a dwarf (or child) standing on the shoulders of a giant sees farther than the giant, itself based on a twelfth-century Latin phrase attributed to Bernard of Chartres.

Anxious enquiries to actual medical practitioners aside, what’s up, doc? had a life before it was used by Bugs Bunny in A Wild Hare (1940) (our new entry contains an exchange from a 1935 US newspaper comic strip) and our new sense for use of doc as a familiar form of address shows evidence of use—perhaps originally as a nickname—going back as far as 1870.

That’s what she said is used (especially in US English) to suggest that a preceding innocent remark contains a sexual innuendo, and our new entry contains quotations from Wayne’s World and the American version of The Office. Our first quotation comes from 1973, but by then it’s already described as ‘the ancient one-liner’, so earlier evidence may well be out there.

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