June 2010 update

On 10 June 2010 the alphabetical range Rh-rococoesque was added to the New Edition: every word in this range has been thoroughly revised and updated. Below are listed all the new words in the range. We have also added a further list of new words from across the alphabet. The OED‘s chief editor, John Simpson, provides some observations on the revision of this section of the alphabet, and Katherine Martin comments on some of the most interesting new words in the batch.


The pace of semantic change can be fast, and these days (and I’m talking in contrast to the days of the First Edition of the OED) we have resources to capture this. In 1920 the Czech writer Karel Čapek published his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) – in Czech, but with a strange new word (in English) in the title. Čapek said that the word was suggested to him by his brother Josef (from Czech robota ‘forced labour, drudgery’). In 1922 the play was performed in an English translation in New York. And straightaway English-language sources started to record this new word robot: ‘an intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal’. The following year (1923) we find people being referred to as ‘robots’, and by 1927 (back in the United States) the new word was linked specifically to developments in what would later become known as ‘robotics’, and we have robot used in the sense ‘a machine capable of automatically carrying out a complex series of movements’.

This is one of the rapid shifts in meaning tracked in the OED Online’s latest release of revised and updated entries (Rhrococoesque). There are plenty of other examples which make the same point. Take rip-off. By assembling the available recorded evidence for the term, we can say fairly confidently that English speakers were first aware of this new term in 1968 (in ‘rip-off artist’). At the time, the sense was ‘a theft, a swindle’. But almost without hesitation English speakers started to play with the word, and in 1969 we find the common ‘imitation’ sense.

Often this creative rapidity crosses language barriers, and this is perhaps most apparent with scientific terms. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) was coined in German in 1935, and its occurrence in English-language scientific source dates from the same year.

It’s fascinating to look at these new arrivals in the language, to see how the historical record addresses this speed of change. If the gap between one sense and another is long, does this mean that the new meaning wasn’t needed till later, or that the record is incomplete?

These are the major words revised in the present release:

rhapsody, rhetoric, rhetorical, rheumatic, rhinoceros, rhizome, rhododendron, rhomboid, rhombus, rhubarb, rhyme, rhythm, rhythmic, rib, ribald, ribbon, rice, rich, rick, ricochet, rid, riddance, riddle, ride, ridge, ridicule, riding, rife, riffle, rifle, rift, rig, right, rigid, rigor, rigour, rile, rill, rim, rime, rind, ring, ringer, ringlet, ringmaster, ringside, rink, rinse, riot, riotous, rip, ripe, ripen, rip-off, riposte, ripper, ripping, ripple, rise, riser, rising, risk, risky, risqué, rissole, rite, ritual, rival, river, rivet, roach, road, roam, roan, roar, roast, rob, robber, robe, robin, robot, robotics, robust, rock, rocker, rockery, rocket, rocky, rococo

Of these, the most significant (in terms of size) are ride, ring, and rise. But the range itself is very varied, after the uniformity of the re- words. Rhinoceros shows medieval and Early Modern writers coming to terms with the extraordinary animal; rock ‘n’ roll documents the emergence and pervasiveness of another extraordinary animal of the 20th century and beyond. The first ‘rockets’ (mid sixteenth century) were fireworks; just after the end of the First World War, in 1919, we began to discuss rocket-powered projectiles. The revolutionary Tom Paine is currently the person first recorded (1782) as claiming that a politician would ‘rise like a rocket and fall like a stick’.

In line with the gradual extension of online searchable historical texts, it is perhaps not surprising that the percentage of words and senses antedated in this release has risen to just over 60% (from around 30% in the revised sections in 2000).

Restaurant reprised

Readers of last quarter’s publication notes will know that, with the aid of numerous readers’ contributions, we had identified 1821 as the year in which eating houses named ‘restaurants’ started to spring up in Britain and America. I’m grateful to those of you who have taken up the challenge to find still earlier references. The current version of the entry includes two early outliers: one, from 1815, describing coffee-houses and ‘an excellent restaurant’ in Paris; the other, from 1806, using the word in a translation of the ‘Regulations of the Literary Society of Antwerp’.

The word is recorded in its modern sense in French from at least 1771, so it is possible the other earlier uses may be discovered. But at present the establishment of such establishments in New York and London can still be dated to 1821.

John Simpson, Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

New words

exa- comb. form

At the time of OED‘s initial publication, the SI (International System of Units) prefix exa- (denoting a factor of 1018, or a quintillion, in names of units of measurement) did not yet exist. Now that it is entering the dictionary, its etymology is worth highlighting. Building on the coincidence that the prefix tera- comb. form (deriving from a Greek word for ‘monster’ and corresponding to 1012, or 10004) is only one letter removed from tetra- comb. form (four), the higher-order SI prefixes have been formed through alteration of roots corresponding to the factor by which they exceed 1000. In the case of peta- comb. form (1015, or 10005), penta- comb. form (from the Greek for five) has been altered by removing the letter ‘n’; exa- (10006) comes from hexa- comb. form (from the Greek for six), altered by removal of the ‘h’. The scale represented by exa- is so vast that it is seldom encountered in daily life. The majority of evidence for the use of the prefix in the OED files is in the word exabyte, denoting the equivalent of 1 billion gigabytes. It has been estimated that all of the digital information created and duplicated in 2009 amounted to about 800 exabytes, which can be visualized as a stack of DVDs reaching from the earth to the moon and back.

Richard Snary n.

This 17th-century slang term for ‘dictionary’, based on the resemblance of the first syllable of that word to the pet name Dick (Dick n.1), is a laboured pun which gained enough traction to persist for over 200 years and even cross the Atlantic before finally falling into obsolescence. The 1761 quotation in OED‘s entry is from a long-winded joke in which an ignorant servant, sent to borrow a dictionary (likely pronounced with elision of the second and third syllables), interprets the word as a man’s forename and surname, but politely asks for Mr Richard Snary rather than the more familiar ‘Dick’. Much of the evidence found by OED researchers seems self-consciously humorous; one suspects that those who used the term would have delighted to be asked what it meant, so as to have the excuse to deliver what is essentially a joke with an etymological punchline.

riffage n.

One surprise of this range was the fecundity of riff n.5 (and riff v.1) in producing new nouns referring to the playing of catchy musical phrases. Besides riffage, this update also includes new entries for the whimsical riffola n. and the retro rifferama n. These words entered the English language amid an explosion of popular music journalism in the second half of the twentieth century, coined by critics who apparently felt limited by the staid predictability of riffing n. The three new entries are only the tip of a neologistic iceberg: OED‘s files also contain examples of riffery, riffdom, riffmongery, and riffology, among others which may eventually be considered for inclusion in future updates.

Katherine Connor Martin, Senior Editor, New Words, OED

List of new words

In addition to these new entries, a number of new subordinate entries were added to existing entries. These included:

Out-of-sequence new entries

10 June 2010 also saw the publication of the the following new entries from across the alphabet:

In addition to these new entries, the following out-of-sequence subordinate entries were added:

Finally, new meanings were added to the following entries: