Words as old as the OED

Words as old as the OED

When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was finally completed in 1928, the world of 1857, when work on the dictionary began, must have seemed impossibly distant. Radio, motorcars, electric lighting, and aviation had become commonplace, countless medical and scientific innovations had been developed; in America, slavery had been abolished after a bloody Civil War, and the American West had been subsumed into the United States; women had won the right to vote, achieving full suffrage in the UK that very year, when the voting age for women was lowered to age 21 (though they still weren’t allowed to attend the dictionary’s celebratory banquet at the male-only Goldsmiths’ Hall).

The compilers of the dictionary were naturally aware of the major changes taking place in their society over those seventy-odd years, and of the impact they were having on the English lexicon. Many of the new words that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were included in the dictionary, but not all (see the famously omitted radium). Even as they celebrated the completion of the dictionary, the editors were already at work on a Supplement of new items that had not made it into the first edition, and of course 1928 introduced still more words, though the editors were probably not aware of many of them at the time.

Today, after several volumes of Supplements and Additions, and 18 years of online publication, the OED includes over 1400 words and phrases whose first known use was in 1928, and which might therefore be said to share a birth year with the dictionary itself.  (With the caveat that the first citation represents only the earliest documented use yet found by researchers; a word may have been in circulation somewhat earlier.) This article will explore some of these words that are as old as the OED.

The dawn of the television age: screenworthiness and superstardom

Televisions did not become a common feature in homes until the late 1940s, but 1928 witnessed several important milestones in the development of the medium. The British engineer John Logie Baird sent the first television signal transatlantically and demonstrated the first colour television, and in the United States, the country’s first television licence was granted.

In this breakout year for the technology, many compounds involving the word television were first attested, including television age, television channel, television actor, television actress, television industry, television advertising, and television tube. The adjective large-screen also came into use to describe the emerging technology: ‘Engineers who have produced such a large screen television picture know very well the enormous intricacies of the device required for producing it at the present time’ (New York Times, 22 April).


Screenworthy (worthy of being made into or featured in a film or television programme) and its derivative screenworthiness first appeared in 1928. Fittingly, superstardom (the condition or fact of being a superstar in a public sphere) is also attested from that year, the first citation commenting on the fickle nature of mass media fame as experienced by an erstwhile matinee idol: ‘Francis X. Bushman, who a dozen years ago achieved super-stardom, later sank into comparative obscurity’ (Carbondale (Illinois) Free Press, 13 Sept.).

The rocket age: space travellers and gas guzzlers

Some technologies from 1928 still seem cutting-edge 90 years later. Astronautics was reported in the journal Science as a new coinage, translating French astronautique, which first appeared the previous year.

‘Astronautics’ is the latest name to be introduced for a branch of science. It has recently been adopted by the French Astronomical Society to indicate the problems of voyaging through space to other heavenly bodies.
1928   Science 20 Apr. (Suppl.), p. xiv

Astronaut itself is first recorded in 1928 with reference to a person who travels in space, though it was previously used as the name of a spacecraft in an 1880 science fiction novel, Across the Zodiac, by Percy Greg. The terms rocket age, rocket booster, space traveller, and space rocket are also first evidenced from the year of the OED’s publication. These early citations, preceding the development of the technology to which they refer, tend to come from popular science publications predicting or speculating on the future or from science fiction.

Gas guzzler

Another jarringly contemporary-sounding word of 1928 is gas guzzler (a motor vehicle, especially a large car, characterized by high fuel consumption). From the first quotation for gas guzzler it seems that some of the inefficient jalopies on the road in 1928 even had the equivalent of bumper stickers:  ‘Sign on the rear of antique gas guzzler: Have some respect for your elders’ (Kingsport (Tennessee) Times, 9 July).

The Jazz Age: nightclubby party-crashers

Many of the words of 1928 support the stereotypical preconceptions of the period. One can’t help but think of the Jazz Age reputation for loosening social mores when confronted with words like party hound, party-crasher, or the adjective nightclubby (characteristic of  a nightclub, or fond of nightclubs): ‘The brilliant, penniless, night-clubby, Christian-namy heartless flirt, the young man with heaps of It but no bank-balance’ (Nation & Athenaeum, 30 June).

cocktail party and party-crasher

The first citation for cocktail party comes from the notorious novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, which is cited over 180 times in the OED: ‘She almost wished she had…made her life one long cocktail party and jazz evening.’ Another notable book of that year, W. Somerset Maugham’s story collection Ashenden; or, the British Agent, based on his experiences in British Intelligence during the First World War, supplies the first known use in English of Americano (a cocktail made with sweet vermouth, bitters, and soda water).

Cannabis is perhaps less closely associated in the popular imagination with 1920s than alcohol is, but the slang term Mary Jane, an alteration of marijuana, is another word first recorded in the OED  from 1928:

What is Marijuana?.. A deadly Mexican drug, more familiarly known as ‘Mary Jane’, which produces wild hilarity when either smoked or eaten.
Daily Express, 11 Oct., p. 2

A new political age: Commies and America Firsters

Nineteen twenty-eight fell between the two world wars and before the Great Depression, but with hindsight some of the themes that would rise to greater prominence later in the century were already apparent in the words emerging at the time. The adjective Mussoliniesque and the adverb fascistically suggest the attention being paid in the English speaking world to the politics of Italy, where Benito Mussolini had been Prime Minister since 1922.

The first citation for Commie, used as a derogatory term for a Communist, comes from an article by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in the official paper of the Boy Scouts, recounting how resourceful Scouts tricked Communist pamphleteers into squandering their subversive literature:

The Communists have hung about outside Scouts Troop Headquarters handing out handbills to the Scouts as they arrived for parade. The game is this. So soon as a Scout got his handbill he went inside the clubroom, changed his appearance, went out by a back way and came round again to the front and got another handbill, as if he were a first arrival. Whoever collected the biggest number of handbills in this was declared the winner.

Now the game has come to an end. The ‘Commies’ have stopped doing their share of it and don’t seem inclined to play any more. What a pity!
1928  Scout 12 May 826/3


In the United States, the term America Firster (a person who contends that the interests of the United States should take precedence over those of other nations), appeared by 1928 in the context of Chicago politics, more than a decade before it gained national prominence with reference to supporters of the America First Committee, which opposed US involvement in the Second World War.

A lexicographer in 1928 couldn’t possibly have predicted which among the countless new words and phrases noted for the first time that year would ultimately be among the hundreds to be deemed worthy (so far) of inclusion in the dictionary.  Each word takes its own path to obscurity or ubiquity, influenced by history and chance, with the outcome seeming obvious only in hindsight. The OED’s current editors have access to many more tools and resources with which to analyze the lexical trends of the past, but we are as unable to predict the futures of the neologisms of 2018 as our predecessors were those of 1928.

Illustrations by Imogen Foxell – artist and Oxford Languages editor. Discover more illustrations on her website or find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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