Code red! It’s the OED September 2020 update

Code red! It’s the OED September 2020 update

Over the past few months our searching out of new lexical information and breadthening of linguistic knowledge has continued apace. As usual, our new material this quarter comes from newly-revised ranges of core English vocabulary, and additions made across the dictionary reflecting recent (or recently noticed) developments in the language. I’ve skim-read more than five hundred new items, from all-dressed and anaerobic digesters to white guilt and witness tampering and am ready to whizz through a few of them, before delving deeper into some ranges and thematic clusters.

A quick Cook’s tour

In this autumnal update, you can wander in the woods in search of the amethyst deceiver, a fungus which, although purple when fresh and moist, fades in such a way as to make it difficult to identify with any certainty. We’ve also included a spot of mycological horror, in the form of a new entry for Cordyceps, sometimes called the ‘zombie fungus’, a parasite of insects which takes over its hosts’ bodies (and in some species, alters their behaviour) before they eventually die, and the fruiting body of the fungus bursts out of them.

If you prefer your zombie apocalypse to come in virtual form, and with a multi-player mode, you probably already know that griefer is a name for an online gamer who engages in griefing, the deliberate spoiling of other players’ enjoyment, but you might not know that both these terms have been around since at least 2000. The phrase cyber safety, meanwhile, has been in play since 1994 when posters to a textile crafts newsgroup were warned to be careful about how much personal information they shared online; and silent mode was first referenced as a feature of pagers (remember them?) in 1974. Mixed reality (1994) is a realm of immersive computer-generated environments in which elements of a physical and virtual environment are combined for use in—among other things—military training, remote working, and surgical applications.

This quarter we can also reveal that self-destructive internal conflicts and mutual recriminations have been referred to by the grim metaphor of the circular firing squad since 1973 (the same year that gives us our first reference to a porn star) and that a person’s virginity has been referred to as their V-card since at least 1995, in a Usenet discussion of the romantic entanglements of characters in the U.S. soap All My Children. Sabrage, the rarefied art of using the dull edge of a sabre or large knife to strike the top off a bottle of champagne, might seem like a word with a long history, but is in fact a relatively new addition to English, no evidence having been found for its use before a reference in the issue of Harpers and Queen for May 1986. By way of contrast, the phrase unconscious bias was first recorded in 1784, though its use as a fixed collocation is more-or-less a twentieth-century development.

As if this weren’t enough temporal disorientation, we’ve brought our entry for minute up to date with the addition of the recent U.S. slang use meaning ‘a relatively long period of time, a while’ (as in, ‘it’s been a minute since our last update’). The earliest evidence of use that we’ve found so far is from a Usenet posting in the alt.rap newsgroup from 1996.

Everything (including the kitchen sink)

Food and its preparation are central to human existence and societies, and this release sees the updating of some core English vocabulary from this realm with the full revision of entries related to cook, kitchen, bake, and bread. With cookie being revised as part of the cook range, completeness (not to mention transatlantic parity) demanded that a thorough overhaul of biscuit words be undertaken as well.

Additions arising from these revisions include a large collection of kitchenalia, cookware, and homeware, including the linguistic histories of baking beans (1942), baking paper (1894) and baking parchment (1940), biscuit boards (1847) and cookie sheets (1900). A new entry for cookie jar traces the development of an everyday piece of kitchen storage into a financial metaphor: they are first called this in the 1870s, but their use as a hiding place for cash or valuables ensured that the phrase to get caught with one’s hands in the cookie jar was being used with reference to theft or embezzlement from the early 1930s. Later in that decade, the idea of the cookie jar as a reserve of funds available to an organization or government had begun to take hold, and by the 1970s it was being used as a modifier (in cookie-jar accounting, cookie-jar reserves) to refer to accounting practices in which money is set aside in good years, and used to conceal declining profits or losses in leaner times.

While a cookie-duster might sound like it belongs with other pieces of baking paraphernalia, it is in fact a humorous name (first recorded in 1918) for a moustache, especially a large, thick moustache that overhangs the wearer’s upper lip.

Bread and butter phrases

Our daily carbs have been so central (and essential) to our existence that the phrases sections of bread and bake are loaded with idiomatic and proverbial expressions. New additions today include a new sense of one’s bread is baked, in a Scottish expression dating to the eighteenth century, and meaning that a person’s good fortune is assured (a direct contrast to earlier use, which meant rather that one’s goose was cooked). Baked in the cake is used in the U.S. to refer to something that is an inevitable or unavoidable feature or consequence of a given set of circumstances or attitudes, first recorded as recently as 1978. Early English translations of the Bible provide our earliest evidence for both man cannot live by bread alone and to cast one’s bread upon the waters, the latter meaning to act with altruistic kindness or generosity to others. A raft of new additions at butter and buttered, meanwhile, show that the idea of referring to the tendency of a person’s bread (or toast) to fall buttered side down (or up) as an indication of their luck entered English from German, in an 1827 translation by Thomas Carlyle of E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Golden Pot.

Tarts and turnovers

Beyond the basic foodstuffs covered in the bread, biscuit, and cookie ranges, in this update you’ll find more indulgent fare in the form of the cherry Bakewell, an extra-sweet 1970s elaboration on the Bakewell tart, made with cherry jam and typically topped with icing and a glacé cherry. Dishes and their names from further afield in this update include the vinarterta, a cake made from layered shortbread and a filling made from dried fruits and flavoured with cardamom, traditionally served at Christmas in Iceland and in Icelandic communities in Canada, but whose name literally translates as ‘Viennese layer cake’ in Icelandic; while a borrowing from Dutch gives us another Christmas specialty, speculoos, thin, crunchy biscuits flavoured with spices and traditionally embossed with designs of animals, people, and festive and other motifs.

On the savoury side we have stromboli, a type of Italian-American savoury turnover, typically made with pizza dough and filled with meat, cheese, or other fillings. First recorded in Philadelphia in 1950, the dish appears to have been named after the film Stromboli released that year and set on the volcanic island in the Mediterranean (though this was probably as much an attempt to cash in on the media attention generated by reports of the affair between its star Ingrid Bergman and its director Roberto Rossellini, as a sign of genuine admiration for the film itself). East Asian cuisine is represented in this update by two new borrowings from Chinese: bak kwa, meat, especially pork, that has been cured with spices, sugar, salt, and soy sauce and dried, and bak kut teh, a dish of pork ribs in a spiced broth, both popular in Malaysia and Singapore.

Cracking codes

While most ranges of OED entries contain a surprising variety of material, the new material in the freshly revised code range of words seems particularly rich. As might be expected, cryptography provides some notable additions, including code cracking and code cracker (both dating to the 1930s) and code talker, a name given during the Second World War to North American Indian members of the U.S. military who used Navajo and other indigenous languages to transmit coded messages.

Computer programming also features heavily in the range, with new entries for codebase, code block, code generator, the collaborative codeathon (first recorded in 1993), and the often-depreciative code monkey (1992). Also represented are the fields of genetics, with a new entry for the adjective coding; linguistics, where code switch as both verb and noun, along with code-mixing and code choice join the existing code-switching in reference to a speaker’s or writer’s decision to move between different available languages, dialects, or registers within a single discourse; and sport, in entries for code-hopper, code-hopping, and code-hop, used—originally in Australia and New Zealand—to refer to sportsmen, especially rugby players, who make the switch from one form of a game and its rules to another.

A code duello, meanwhile, is a set of rules and conventions to be followed by the participants in a duel, and—perhaps surprisingly—used especially with reference to the practice of duelling in the southern states of the U.S. before the American Civil War. More everyday rules are embodied in the phrases code of practice and code of conduct, recorded from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries respectively; the less official and more evasive code of silence, meanwhile, dates back to the 1890s. Our earliest reference to colour-coded levels of alert or threat is relatively recent, with a 1957 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction giving us our first example of a code red situation.

And slimily . . .

Children’s author Dr Seuss is already mentioned in the etymologies of two items in OED, nerd and grinch, but this quarter’s update sees his inclusion in a third. Oobleck is a name given to the—typically brightly coloured—mixture of cornflour (cornstarch) and water used in classrooms to demonstrate the fascinating behaviour of a non-Newtonian fluid which appears to become more viscous when placed under stress; it takes this name from the magical sticky green slime which threatens the feudal Kingdom of Didd in Seuss’s 1949 work Bartholomew and the Oobleck.

And, with that, we should be back with a December update (assuming that the Grinch doesn’t attempt to thwart us).

A number of words related to hobbies have been added to the OED in this update. If you would like to contribute a word to our hobbies appeal, our submission form can be found here.

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash

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.