Transport fever, new entrants, and the latest OED appeals

The latest range of revised and updated OED entries covers two general themes: the entirely unrelated topics of transport and infection, spearheaded on the one hand by the dictionary’s general editors (transport) and on the other hand by the team’s science editors (infection). Alongside these, we have major clusters around five keywords: ice, key, save, small, and state.

Car is one of those Celtic words that have made it big in English. Gaulish carro (found in compounds) is a “wheeled vehicle used for transporting burdens” and Early Irish carr was a wagon or chariot. The Celtic word passed into Latin, and we acquired it eventually through French in the Middle Ages. For many years it simply meant a cart or wagon – or in literary contexts a chariot. But it was hauled into new uses with the advent of new technologies.

When the Montgolfier brothers ascended in their air balloon in 1783 they needed something to sit in. In English we drafted in the word car for the balloon’s ‘gondola’. The updated OED entry for car cites a contemporary source:

1783 Scots Mag. Dec. 653/1 They then descended so low as to skim along the surface of the ground.‥ Seeing a hill before them, they cast some of their superfluous cloathing out of the car, and thus cleared the eminence.

About forty years later more new technology found another use for the word car. The embryonic railway system in America wanted a word for a ‘railway carriage’ or ‘wagon’, and what better neat little three-letter word than car. From the original railways in quarries and mines, it migrated to passenger trains. In the late eighteen-thirties Harriet Martineau was quite familiar with the term:

1837 H. Martineau Society in Amer. II. 181 During my last trip on the Columbia and Philadelphia rail road, a lady in the car had a shawl burned to destruction on her shoulders.

The two words automobile (in the French corner) and (motor) car (representing the English-speaking world) drew up in opposing ranks as we looked about for a word to describe the new phenomenon – the “horseless carriage” – of the 1890s. All three had first been used on the railways – here are the OED’s first examples in that context (including autocar, which had apparently not been used on the railways first):


1895 Standard 22 Aug. 4/7 The British Carriage Builders‥do not seem to be alarmed by the new methods of locomotion of which so much is being heard. Cycles and ‘automobiles’ do not depress their spirits.

1895 Westm. Gaz. 10 Sept. 3/2 The chief reason why motor-cars have not been more generally adopted in America lies in the roughness‥of the roads.

1895 Aberdeen Weekly Jrnl. 15 Nov. 5/2 A Glasgow engineer, George Johnson‥is now running an autocar in the streets of that city.

1896 L. Serraillier tr. D. Farman Auto-cars 132 The latter drove with a daring which may have been dangerous to himself, but which never affected his car.

The evidence to date shows that automobile crept in first, closely followed by motor car, autocar, and then car on its own. Further revised and updated entries from the field of transport include bicycle, bus, cycle, and perhaps station.

The OED’s scientific editors have been updating further entries for major diseases and infections – a category whose definitions have often slipped rapidly out of date since the dictionary was originally published between 1884 and 1928. These are the key ones in this release: leprosy, scarlet fever, syphilis, typhoid, and yellow fever. The changes in perspective and medical capacity since the start of the twentieth century, when these entries first appeared, is marked. Here are the original and current versions of the definitions for leprosy and scarlet fever, as examples:


ORIGINAL DEFINITION (1902): an infectious bacterial disease ( Elephantiasis græcorum), which slowly eats away the body, and forms shining white scales on the skin; common in mediaeval Europe. (First recorded instance: 1535.]

REVISED DEFINITION (2012): Originally (freq. with distinguishing word): disease causing scaliness, loss of pigmentation, or scabbiness of the skin; an instance or type of such disease; (now hist.). In later use: spec. the chronic disease caused by infection with the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which affects mainly the skin and peripheral nerves, causing nodular and macular lesions of the skin which are often pale and scaly, and loss of sensory and motor function (esp. in the limbs) resulting in destruction of tissue and deformity of the affected parts of the body in severe untreated cases; also called Hansen’s disease and (now hist.) elephantiasis or elephantiasis Graecorum.

Leprosy appears to have been common in Europe in the Middle Ages, but its prevalence had declined by the end of that period, and it is now mainly a disease of the tropics. It occurs in a number of different forms, determined primarily by the immune response of the infected individual, including lepromatous leprosy (see LEPROMATOUS adj. 2), tuberculoid leprosy (see TUBERCULOID adj. b), histoid leprosy (see HISTOID adj. 2), etc. It can also be classified by the number of bacteria identifiable in lesions of the skin; see multibacillary adj. at MULTI- comb. form 1a, paucibacillary adj. at PAUCI- comb. form . Other diseases for which the name was originally used probably include unrelated conditions such as psoriasis, scabies, leukoderma or vitiligo, and syphilis.  [New first recorded instance: ?a1450.]

scarlet fever:

ORIGINAL DEFINITION (1910): a contagious febrile disease, distinguished by a scarlet efflorescence of the skin and of the mucous membrane of the mouth and pharynx. Also known as scarlatina adj. [First recorded instance: 1676.]

REVISED DEFINITION (2012): Originally: any of various fevers accompanied by a red rash; cf. PURPLE FEVER n. In later use: spec. an infectious disease characterized by a distinctive scarlet rash, originally punctate and later usu. confluent, which begins on the trunk and neck and spreads to the face and extremities, is followed by peeling of the skin, and is typically associated with severe pharyngitis or tonsillitis. Also called scarlatina.

Scarlet fever is now known to be a complication of streptococcal infection of the throat or other site in the body, occurring when group A streptococci are infected with bacteriophage carrying the gene for a toxin (erythrogenic toxin) which causes the rash. [First recorded instance now a1651.]

More technology and diseases

This quarter’s new-words component draws in more terms from these areas. The imagined and humorous American disease of senioritis has been in the waiting room for over a century but until now has not pushed for inclusion in the OED:

A supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or university, esp. characterized by a decline in motivation or performance. (1907-)

Captcha, rather than capture, may not be a contender for anyone’s word of the year, but it’s become an established term, and it appears in the OED now for the first time. The etymology is intriguing: it’s an acronym built from the initial letters of Completely Automatic Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (which must have taken someone a while to think up). The formal definition runs:

Any of various authentication systems devised to enable a computer to distinguish human from computer input, typically in order to thwart spam or to prevent automated misuse of a web site; a manifestation of such a system, esp. a string of distorted letters that a user must read and key in correctly to proceed. (2001-)

It’s been suggested that another new entrant, xolo (short for xoloitzcuintli and perhaps known to us better as the Mexican hairless dog) might be a word that children’s book illustrators could use as another option of an animal before “Yak” and “Zebra”.

Bill Trumble and retirement: a retiring, withdrawing, recoyling, fetching or putting backe, pulling or gathering in (Randle Cotgrave, 1611)

This week marks the retirement of another long-serving OED editorial staff member, Bill Trumble. Bill joined the staff of the Supplement of the OED in 1975 as a science editor, and has contributed since then to a wide range of Oxford Dictionaries including the New Shorter OED, the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, and of course the OED itself. He formed part of the successful BBC1 University Challenge: the Professionals team from Oxford University Press in 2004, and even managed to take in a secondment to California between work on other projects.

Appealing requests

Recently the OED has launched its latest Appeals. This time the appeals are online requests, allowing contributors to present their findings both to the OED and to anyone else who is following the discussion. The number-one hot success of the first set of appeals was “blue-arsed fly”, taken back by readers from 1970 to 1936 in Australia. Another finding from the first appeals was Bellini (the cocktail), found in 1956 (formerly 1965). Currently in the shop window for appeal-hunters are easy-peasy (wanted before 1976) and carbo-loading (wanted before 1978).

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED