Toppers, pipperoos, and rumptydoolers: ‘excellent’ words in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED
In a recent blog post on the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED), we noted that one of the categories which has expanded significantly in recent years is excellent. To tie in with this quarter’s revision of top and its many excellence-related senses, derivatives, and compounds (topper, topping, top-notch, etc.), we’ll take a closer look here at the history of English words in this semantic field.
In the HTOED there are currently 265 words in the noun category excellence and its subcategories, 395 words in the related adjective section, and many more in other word classes: it is a highly productive area of language. One of the notable features of this category is semantic generalization and weakening: that is, many of the words were originally used in more specific – and usually stronger – senses before also being used to mean ‘excellent’ generally. Early examples of this type include divine, fabulous, stupendous, and terrific; more recent examples include epic (used from 1983 in the ‘excellent’ sense, as a development of the much earlier sense ‘suitable for the subject of an epic poem’) and pukka (1991 in the slang sense ‘excellent’, from earlier senses including ‘genuine’, ‘socially acceptable’, etc.). Another similar type of shift is where a word originally meant ‘best’ or ‘pre-eminent’ or similar, and then developed a slightly weakened sense ‘extremely good’: this change happened with excellent itself, and it is also seen in a number of the top words. For example, top as an adjective was used in various senses such as ‘highest in rank’ (e.g. ‘top executives’) before the sense ‘excellent’ was first used in the mid-20th century – the earliest example at the OED sense is from a Sydney newspaper in 1947: “It was a fair time since they had met, but Tom was still a top bloke.” The fine line between the senses ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ is indicated in one of the subcategories of the HTOED excellent category, very excellent or first-rate, which contains terms which straddle these meanings, including several top adjectives, e.g. top-notch (1869 in this sense), top-shelf (1898), top-flight (1924), and top drawer (1938).
Another recurring pattern is that of adjectives ending in -ing (rattling, ripping, spiffing, smashing, etc.) which originally express an action (usually one that is energetic, fast, or noisy) and are then used colloquially to mean ‘excellent’ or ‘first-rate’. Most developments of this type are from the 18th century onwards, and several now have an old-fashioned feel. Usage is illustrated in quotations such as “Ripping work, my Lord!” (1776), “the clippingest places for bathing” (1848), “My first experience was such a shrieking success” (1926), and “Bill was a belting bloke” (2015). The newly revised barnstorming is also of this type (as in “Rory McIlroy produced a barnstorming back nine”, 2014). Topping, also newly revised this quarter, is more like the words described in the previous paragraph (with an earlier sense ‘pre-eminent, very best’, before the colloquial ‘excellent’ sense was first used in the 18th century.) But like ripping, spiffing, etc., topping is now dated in tone, as exemplified in the most recent illustrative quotation (from a fictional 1917 letter in a 2003 novel): “So thank you, my dear old chum, for a topping Christmas.”
The excellence category also shows metaphorical patterns, especially in the noun subcategories excellent person and excellent thing. Excellent people and things have been described figuratively as valuable or beautiful gems, treasures, and birds, for example gem, carbuncle, diamond, brooch, swan, and phoenix, all of which date back to the Middle English period in this sense. Two words for fruit which follow a similar pattern are peach and pippin: these are used figuratively in the sense ‘excellent person/thing’ from 1710 and 1897 respectively, and both give rise to colloquial derivatives and shortenings with the same meaning: peacherino (1896), peacheroo (1942, pip (1900), and pipperoo (1939). In excellent person and excellent thing we also find many nouns ending in –er, often – though not always – corresponding to the -ing words described in the previous paragraph, and mainly emerging from the 18th century onwards. For example, excellent people and things have been referred to over the past few hundred years as rattlers, rippers, ripsnorters, roarers, clinkers, corkers, fizzers, screamers, sneezers, hummers, dingers, humdingers, and rumptydoolers. A real topper of a category.
HTOED links have been added to more than 1,300 senses in this update. These include entries and senses new to the OED (e.g. there are HTOED links at new additions such as blousette, galdem, grocery shop as a verb, jabbed, pumpkin spice, shockie, top loft, valari, weathergirl, and many more), as well as senses already in OED.
For more information about HTOED and its uses, see https://public.oed.com/blog/oed-historical-thesaurus-guide/
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