New words notes March 2018

By Katherine Connor Martin, Head of US Dictionaries

The March 2018 update of the OED adds more than 700 new words and senses, including the selection of items described in greater detail below. The full list of entries can be found here.

The newly added entry for cultural appropriation defines it as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.’ The term began to enter widespread usage in the 1980s, but it is more than 70 years old. The OED’s first citation comes from a 1945 essay by Arthur E. Christy, discussing ‘European cultural appropriation from the Orient’.

An everything bagel is a bagel topped with a mixture of seeds and seasonings, typically including poppy and sesame seeds, dried onion and garlic, and salt. Nowadays, everything bagels are de rigeur in any New York bagel shop, but thirty years ago they were a curiosity. The first recorded use comes from a 1988 article in the New York Times, in which the ‘everything bagel’ is described as a speciality of a company called the Bagel Baron, founded in Queens by a Soviet émigré named Arkady Goshchinsky who became a bagel baker after being laid off from his previous career as a nuclear plant engineer.

Bubele is a Yiddish-derived term of endearment or form of address, used especially for a child or an elderly relative. Etymologically, it is a diminutive of bobe (often spelled bubbe in English), meaning grandmother. The word’s use to refer to a child derives from the custom of ‘inverse address’: in referring to her granddaughter as ‘little grandmother’, a grandmother uses the inverse of the relationship in which the girl stands to her. This custom can also be seen in the Yiddish word mamele, which means both ‘dear mother’ and ‘dear little child’.

The term mardy bum is used in northern and midlands British English to refer to ‘a spoilt, sulky, or oversensitive person (originally esp. a child)’, with mardy likely being derived from marred. The most recent quotation in the OED’s entry comes from the lyrics of a song (also titled mardy bum) by the rock band the Arctic Monkeys, originally from Sheffield: ‘Now then Mardy Bum I’ve seen your frown And it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun.’

The adjective trans (now typically meaning ‘transgender’) has been covered in the OED since 2013, but now an entry has also been added for trans* (pronounced as ‘trans’, ‘trans asterisk’, or ‘trans star’) as a distinct lexical item, with the asterisk representing the use of that symbol in computing as a wild card that will match any combination of characters in a search. The purpose of the asterisk was originally to include explicitly both transsexual and transgender, but it now more often serves to indicate the inclusion of a wider range of gender identities. This marks the first time that an asterisk has appeared as part of an OED headword, but the entry for the U.S. telephony term star 69 gives *69 (with an asterisk) as a variant form. For an in-depth discussion of the new sexual and gender identity terms added in this update, see this post by Jonathan Dent.

The adverb and preposition even has been part of the language since Old English, but its usage continues to evolve. The entry grew by 10 senses in the course of its revision, with the most recent of these apparently having arisen within the past two decades; the OED describes this sense as being used ‘in various negative phrases with intentional ellipsis of verb object, implying that the speaker is too overwhelmed with emotion to continue,’ characteristically in the phrase I can’t even. The OED’s first citation comes from a 2001 Usenet post. A similar utterance of the phrase ‘I can’t even’ by Bob Dylan from 1966 has been noted in discussions of the origins of this Millennial even, but it isn’t clear that that represents the deliberate ellipsis which marks the newly emergent sense.

The OED does not include entries for the proper names of individuals unless they have developed an eponymic use. Thus, the new entry for Jackie O noun does not refer to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, wife of John F. Kennedy and First Lady of the United States during his presidency (1961–3), but rather to the fashion accessory which has come to be referred to by her nickname: a style of sunglasses with large, round, and very dark lenses. This is not the first time that an eponym referring to a person’s characteristic spectacles has been added to the OED; in 2004, an entry was added for John Lennon, as used to designate metal-framed spectacles or sunglasses with small, round lenses. Both of these cases demonstrate that the manner in which the English lexicon memorializes public figures does not necessarily reflect their most prominent cultural or historical legacy.

With the revision of the hip- range in this quarter’s update, the OED added several new words related to the ancient Latin and Greek combining forms hippo- and ἱππο- (meaning ‘horse’). A hippodrama was a theatrical or circus performance, popular in the early 19th century, in which scenes and spectacles involving trained horses and displays of horsemanship were combined with elements of traditional drama. Hippotherapy is the use of horse riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment. The obsolete adjective hippophagistic meant ‘relating to or characterized by the eating of horsemeat’, and in Greek mythology a hippalektryon is a mythical creature with the head, shoulders, and forelegs of a horse and the wings, tail, and legs of a cockerel.

Of course, in English, the word hippo on its own refers not to a horse but to a hippopotamus (a word which itself derives ultimately from a Greek term that translates literally as ‘river horse’). Two new senses have been added to the entry for hippo. One is a South African term for an armoured vehicle used by the police as a personnel carrier. The other (more fully referred to as a hippo bag) is a flat-bottomed plastic bag filled with water and placed in the cistern of a toilet in order to reduce the cistern’s capacity and thus reduce the amount of water used each time the toilet is flushed, as a water conservation measure.

The noun microplastic refers to extremely small pieces of plastic debris found in the environment, especially in seawater, resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste. The term is recorded from 1990, but has recently surged in usage due to concerns about the impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment.  Increasing awareness of the human impact on the natural world has been responsible for many new English words since the late 20th century. Another such term now added to the OED is eco-criticism (from 1977), defined as  ‘the interdisciplinary field of study which explores how the natural world is portrayed in literature, especially in relation to modern environmental or ecological concerns’.