A coalition of all the talents: the OED in the future

Clara Bow - the It Girl

Clara Bow – the It Girl

The fifty-fifth quarterly online release from the OED brings some threads of word-work to a close and in other areas opens up new vistas. We have now completed the revision of all of the pronoun entries in the dictionary, with the publication here of he, she, it, and they, along with their related forms. These are typically complex entries dating back to the earliest period of English, but they also contain modern tweaks (come back to mine = ‘my house’), or It used adjectivally for “fashionable” (after the nickname of the It Girl Clara Bow). Of this set of four pronouns only they does not show any new senses since the days of the Supplement to the OED (1972-86).

The two largest entry clusters to be revised and updated in this release are great and grey. Great continues a thread including big and small published recently, and grey maintains a continuum of colour words (and absence-of-colour words) including black, blue, pink, purple, and red. Other major terms in this release include coal and iron (including the adjective irony = “iron-like” and the unrelated irony noun, by which meaning is conveyed – often humorously or for emphasis – by its converse).

Churchill Coalition 1940-5

Churchill Coalition 1940-5

Lingo and linguistics close a stream opened with language several releases ago, and cultivation and its neighbours complete the sequence initiated a while ago by culture. At the other end of the spectrum, the revision and update of low heralds the way for high on the horizon.

As always, it’s of interest to look at the detail of individual entries or sub-entries, to see what has happened to them in the revision process. OED1 includes a single sense for the verb to coalize (“to enter into, or form, a coalition”). It’s an unusual verb, related to the noun coalition, but it has a history of well over 200 years. When the entry was first published in OED1 (in 1891) the earliest reference known at that time (in fact as the derivative coalizer) came from a note of 1794 by John Baker Holroyd, 1st Earl of Sheffield, and a close friend of Edward Gibbon, in the Correspondence of Lord Auckland:

I called on all my old friends, the new coalisers, but did not see one of them.

Lord Sheffield’s use puts the word into a political environment towards the end of the eighteenth century. OED1’s next two examples (coalized and the verb to coalize, both from 1837) are from Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution, and the next (also dated 1837) from a commentary by Thackeray on Carlyle. The first edition of the OED based its entry around the work of the writer and historian Thomas Carlyle.

It’s not surprising, under the circumstances, that OED1 regarded to coalize as a borrowing into English of the French verb coaliser, itself from French coalition. The situation seems cut and dried.

But with the mass of lexical material available to editors today things are not always quite so cut and dried. For OED3 the verb to coalize is not so obviously a French import. First of all, we find an earlier non-political usage in the 17th century, in the second series of pharmacist John Houghton’s Collection of Letters for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade (1697):

This put into Pots containing ten or twelve Pounds of Metal each, and set in a Furnace..melts and coalizes, or joyns in ten or twelve Hours time into a new thing called Brass.

Houghton uses to coalize in a chemical context, of the coalescence of metals to produce brass. But there seems to be only one example of this meaning, and so we cannot presume that the word has any continuity between this physical sense and the later political one. But the later political use is not as late as 1794, as it was in OED1. By now we have earlier references bringing it back to Horace Walpole in 1748:

Gentlemen, have been so easily reconciled to these Men, as to coalize or at least submit to the Name of a Coalition with them..is another Difficulty.

Coalition - All the Talents Thomas Rowlandson 1807

Coalition – “All the Talents” Thomas Rowlandson 1807

The best explanation for the appearance of these usages is not by recourse to French (where the political use is not found before 1790), but to the English word coalition, recorded in various senses since as early as 1605, and in a distinctly political environment by 1715 in the title of Nathaniel Castleton’s Essay towards a coalition of parties in Great Britain. To coalize had to fight with the initially more successful to coalite and with the older to coalesce. When regarded alongside coalition it doesn’t really seem to have had the success it promised in the days of Walpole and Carlyle. But it’s a fascinating sidelight into how words appear to be on a collision course with success before fading towards obsolescence.

Great balls of fire! More new words for the OED

Many of the new words and senses added to the OED are identified by editors revising specific entries. For instance, in revising the low range, editors added lower 48 (used in Alaska to refer to the 48 contiguous US states), low-top (used especially to refer to a sports shoe that does not extend above the wearer’s ankle), low-resolution (designating an image or device lacking sharp focus or fine detail) and dozens of other familiar items which were not known to the editors who produced the OED’s original entry for low in 1903. Also included for the first time in this update:

The most familiar meaning of phone hacking today is the practice of gaining unauthorized access to a person’s telephone communications or data, which has been the subject of many recent headlines. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, phone hacking was another term for phreaking, or phone phreaking, the practice of using an electronic device to make long-distance phone calls without paying, or at a reduced rate.

Gurrier, an Irish English colloquialism for a street urchin or hooligan, may be less than a century old (it is recorded from 1936), but its origins are shrouded in mystery. Theories on its origin range from a reference to the gur-cake, a type of pastry formerly associated with street urchins, to the French guerrier (warrior), to a possible connection with the Scottish English word gurry (used as a noun in a range of meanings, from brawl, to dog fight, to bustle).

Heart attack on a plate is a colourful and evocative term for an unhealthy dish or meal, especially one which is high in saturated fat. It was originally used specifically with reference to the traditional English or Irish breakfast, featuring fried eggs, sausages, and bacon, among other delicacies. Evidence for the phrase has been traced back to 1984 with the assistance of contributors to the OED Appeals.

Great balls of fire! This exclamation of amazement or surprise is indelibly associated with Jerry Lewis, whose 1957 recording of the song Great Balls of Fire, with its refrain ‘goodness gracious, great balls of fire!’ has become a classic. The new OED entry for the phrase records it in use from as early as 1893.

Popular culture serves not only to popularize existing terms, but also to launch new ones. In the case of orgasmatron, a word introduced in Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper (as the name for a hypothetical device which induces orgasm) has persisted in English use as a humorous term employed chiefly for rhetorical effect. A 1994 piece in the Guardian referred to cacao as ‘an orgasmatron for chocoholics’.

The words milchig and fleishig are used in the context of Jewish kosher cooking to denote foods containing milk and meat, respectively. (Foods containing neither milk nor meat are pareve.) Both words, deriving from Yiddish, are first attested in English from around the turn of the 20th century, in the midst of a period of significant Jewish immigration to the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain.

Buzzworthy, meaning ‘likely to generate enthusiastic interest and attention, especially in the popular media’, now enters the OED for the first time. Usage of this adjective began to skyrocket in the late 1990s, but the word is recorded almost two decades earlier, in 1980.

Splosh has now been added in a new sense, as an onomatopoetic slang term for tea, originating in East London. OED already recorded an earlier slang sense of the word, meaning ‘money’.

A new Timelord?

Just recently the media in the UK has been awash with news about a new actor playing the part of Dr Who. In a small way the OED is undergoing a similar transformation, as Michael Proffitt takes over from me as Chief Editor on 1 November this year. These may no longer be the days of the Great Cham (see the latest OED release) or “Dr Murray, Oxford”, but the OED always needs steady hands to see it through whatever lexical issues arise. So I’m glad to see the experience of Michael – and his new Deputy Chief Editor Philip Durkin, alongside Edmund Weiner – forming a coalition or perhaps a government of all the talents to guide the dictionary into the future.

John Simpson

Chief Editor, OED

Dr Murray's Tardis-like

Dr Murray’s Tardis-like