March 2011 update

The latest update of the OED, published on 24 March 2011, revises more than 1,900 entries and adds new words from across the dictionary. The OED‘s chief editor, John Simpson, provides some observations on the revisions in this update, while Graeme Diamond and Katherine Martin comment on some of the most interesting new words in the batch. A full list of new words can be found below.


Up and running online

It is a remarkable thing to have a new web site. And it is remarkable to see how much the environment has changed over the ten years since the OED first went online. Back in 2000 there was some curiosity about the online dictionary– no other big dictionary had dipped its toes in the water. But this time round there was an avalanche of interest in the new site, and for those first few hours there was even some concern that the site might topple over. Fortunately it didn’t, and it’s well able to handle the increased ‘traffic’ that’s padding along to each day. The OED’s relaunch was marked with a party for the press and others at the Oxford University Press offices on Madison Avenue, New York:

We are some way from having a full analysis of how the new site is being used, but there are some intriguing figures. Perhaps top of the list is that in January alone over 43% of the entries in the OED were inspected at least once. The entry most commonly searched for was the entry for dictionary itself, newly revised for the online relaunch (and with a new first example sending tremors through the lexicographical world). Right next to dictionary, in the silver-medal position, was love, followed closely by culture and then that old favourite nice.

More new material online

The current release brings the percentage of the OED that has been revised up above the 30% mark. For the purposes of measuring progress we use the number of lexical units in the dictionary (senses and nested compounds etc. – roughly anything that can have a paragraph of illustrative quotations associated with it). This is a more accurate measure than the number of headword entries.

We’ve now revised 285,403 out of a total of 796,591 ‘senses’. The number of ‘senses’ per entry has risen from around 1.7 in the first edition of the dictionary (1884-1928) to marginally under 3 per entry. As well as updating over 285,000 senses, we’ve added 45,437 new words and meanings. This means that over 13% of the dictionary is entirely new. Of the updated senses, 27% of them are ‘scientific’ – or were at least considered to fall within the sections allocated to the OED’s scientific editors for revision.

The newly revised range takes us from roto– right to the end of the letter R. In the days of the first edition of the dictionary the letter R was published in instalments over seven years (1903-10). The revised text appeared over nine quarters (just over two years). When we started revising the dictionary (at the letter M) we expected to move through to the end of R and then revert to A. But new editing software means that we can now be much more flexible, and we’re pinpointing major entries throughout the alphabet – with an eye particularly on those older ones near the beginning.

So this instalment to the end of R marks the last in the old series of revisions. In future the diet will be more alphabetically varied.

These are some of the more important entries in the range:

rotor, rotten, rotund, rough, round, rouse, rout, route, routine, rove, rover, row, royal, royalist, royalty, rub, rubber, rubbish, rubble, ruby, ruck, rudder, ruddy, rude, rudimentary, rue, ruff, ruffian, ruffle, rug, rugby, rugged, ruin, rule, ruler, rum, rumble, ruminant, ruminate, rummage, rumour, rump, run, rune, rung, runner, running, runt, rupee, rupture, rural, ruse, rush, russet, Russian, rust, rustic, rustle, rusty, rut, ruthless, ryegrass

The biggest entry in this range is run and its derivatives, another example of a very short word which plays a significant role in the language (alongside, for example, make, pull, put, and red). The verb alone contains 645 senses (including phrases and other idiomatic uses – compare unrevised set, with 579 senses at present), and is now the largest single entry in the dictionary, half as large again as the next-biggest word put (the verb). The lexicographer needs to find a way to present all of these usages of run in a structured way. The entry is here broken down into semantic sections: senses to do with moving quickly by means of the legs (athletes running); travelling or moving physically in other ways (trains running); flowing (subdivided into liquids that run and solids – like grains – that run); continuing or proceeding (time running); arranging or configuring (in space: fences running the length of a garden); operating (machines running). Then within these you have many further additional meanings or nuances, or transitive alongside intransitive uses; then phrases (such as to run a mile), idiomatic uses (phrasal verbs: to run up – with adverbs and prepositions). And for each sense there’s the first occurrence the editor has been able to find:

Sense 5c: To allow to range or feed at large; to graze (cattle, sheep, etc.):

1767 J. Lewis Uniting & Monopolizing Farms 8 Off-lands, to run young cattle, &c., upon.

Sense 51b: Of sand in an hourglass: to pass from one compartment into the other.

1557 Songes & Sonettes sig. R.iiv, I saw, my tyme how it did runne, as sand out of the glasse.

Sense 73d: Of a person: to act or behave in such a way as to go against an approved code of conduct, stricture, trend, etc.

1542 R. Burdet Dyalogue Def. Women sig. E.iii, With ragynge and raylynge, they ronne agaynst ryght.

My feeling is that set hasn’t developed as much as run in the 20th and 21st centuries and so, when revised, it will be touch-and-go whether it hauls itself back into the largest-entry position it held in the first and second editions of the dictionary.

There are easier entries: try ruffian, rugby, ruthless. How has rude changed its meaning over the centuries? More or less all of the meanings of rude were in place by the end of the Middle English period, ranging through this spectrum: without reason, harsh, violent, primitive, inexpert, unrefined, raw, makeshift, inexact, and impolite. One fascinating thing about rude is how a French word with a wide range of meanings entered English (via Anglo-Norman) in an equally wide range of meanings. The new word and the new senses seem to have been ‘borrowed’ in a shower.

 The about-this-entry graphic at rude shows how many of its senses entered English at approximately the same time

If you’d like a more graceful introduction to the OED try the revised entry at rotunda (and check the ‘Previous version’ link to see how the entry has changed during revision). Or click the first ‘Thesaurus’ button in the entry and compare rotunda with quadrangle, rotundo, tholos, umbrella, rotund, flat-iron, cone, tetragon, tempietto, igloo, and shoe-box.

As if by careful planning the newly revised entries include royal. Sense 3d covers royal wedding and royal marriage. ‘The royal we’ is predated from 1835 to 1821, but perhaps rather puzzlingly in relation to Napoleon:

1821 London Lit. Gaz. 28 July 470/1 The first use of the royal we by Buonaparte was in the appointment of his brother-in-law, Leclerc, to St. Domingo, in autumn 1801.

Finally, those of you who have corresponded with the OED by letter, phone, or email over the past few years may well have received an answer from Margot Charlton. Margot retires from the dictionary’s administrative staff in April after 25 years – formally as the OED’s departmental secretary, but to the outside world as the tirelessly polite voice of the OED responding readily to enquiring, valuable, intriguing, and sometime frankly puzzling communications on language. She arrived as the hot metal used to print the four volumes of the Supplement to the OED was finally being cooled in 1986, and leaves just after the OED web site has relaunched. With very best wishes for a happy retirement from all of your contacts across the world!
John Simpson, Chief Editor OED

New words

New initialisms in the OED


For the March 2011 release of OED Online, we have selected for publication a number of noteworthy initialisms—abbreviations consisting of the initial letters of a name or expression. Some of these—such as OMG  [OMG int. (and n.) and adj.]: ‘Oh my God’ (or sometimes ‘gosh’, ‘goodness’, etc.) and LOL  [LOL int. and n./2]: ‘laughing out loud’—are strongly associated with the language of electronic communications (email, texting, social networks, blogs, and so on). They join other entries of this sort: IMHO (‘in my humble opinion’) [IMHO at I n./1], TMI (‘too much information’)  [TMI at T n.], and BFF (‘best friends forever’) [BFF at B n.], among others.

Of course in such a context initialisms are quicker to type than the full forms, and (in the case of text messages, or Twitter, for example) they help to say more in media where there is a limit to a number of characters one may use in a single message. OMG and LOL are found outside of electronic contexts, however; in print, and even in spoken use (see, for example, the 2003 quotation for LOL int.), where there often seems to be a bit more than simple abbreviation going on. The intention is usually to signal an informal, gossipy mode of expression, and perhaps parody the level of unreflective enthusiasm or overstatement that can sometimes appear in online discourse, while at the same time marking oneself as an ‘insider’ au fait with the forms of expression associated with the latest technology.

As such usage indicates, many people would consider these recent coinages, from the last 10 or 20 years, and associate them with a younger generation conversant with all forms of digital communications. As is often the case, OED’s research has revealed some unexpected historical  perspectives: our first quotation for OMG is from a personal letter from 1917; the letters LOL had a previous life, starting in 1960, denoting an elderly woman (or ‘little old lady’; see LOL n./1); and the entry for FYI  [FYI phr., adj., and n.], for example, shows it originated in the language of memoranda in 1941.

Rise of the Wag

This release also contains another initialism—an acronym, in fact (acronyms being initialisms which are pronounced as words rather than letter by letter)—less connected to online media, although it is certainly used on them. Wag  [WAG n./4] is notable for the extremely fast journey from its introduction to the language to its use as usual English vocabulary. In 2002, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the staff at the England footballers’ pre-World Cup training camp referred to the players’ partners collectively as ‘Wags’, from the initial letters of ‘wives and girlfriends’. The term then remained relatively dormant, except for a small and brief revival around the time of Euro 2004, before the 2006 World Cup in Germany saw an explosion of usage, as the women, including Victoria Beckham and Colleen McLoughlin (now Colleen Rooney), had a high profile of their own, and were a visible element (especially to the media) of the England team’s presence in their base, Baden-Baden. Debates raged in the newspapers about whether the women’s presence was ‘distracting’ the footballers, alongside an equal fascination with what they were buying and wearing.

Such was the exposure the term received in this period that it became a byword for the female partners of male professionals (in football and in other spheres), often connoting a glamorous or extravagant lifestyle and a high media profile. By 2007, as the OED’s quotation paragraph shows, a general readership could be expected to understand sentences such as ‘dresses that, unless you’re a Wag, are best worn with small heels instead of stilettos’ and ‘And not only did the darts WAGs attend tournaments, they had to do so without drinking’; sentences that, ten years ago, would have been utterly baffling. It is quite uncommon for new words to reach such a level of ubiquity in such a short time after their first appearance, and that the word Wag has done so perhaps demonstrates not so much its own inherent usefulness or catchiness as the influence that the print media, especially in its coverage of big stories such as the World Cup, can still have on the ways in which language is used, even in the age of social networking.
Graeme Diamond, OED

Other new words in the OED

Off the menu

As the culinary appetites of the English-speaking world grow ever more diverse, loan words referring to new cuisines are a perennial source of new OED entries. The March 2011 update sees us adding such far-flung items as banh mi n. (also known as a Vietnamese sandwich n.), taquito n. (a crisp-fried Tex-Mex snack), and kleftiko n. (a Greek dish of slow-cooked lamb). Dishes from the English-speaking world are also in evidence, with new entries for the classic English dessert Eton mess n., the American doughnut hole n., and that emblem of West Coast US sushi culture, the California roll. And speaking of food, the OED now acknowledges the ten- (or three-, five- etc.) second rule [second n.1 Additions (b)], which allows for the eating of a delicious morsel that has fallen to the floor, provided that it is retrieved within the specified period of time.

♥ to heart

The new sense added to heart v. in this update may be the first English usage to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper-stickers. It originated as a humorous reference to logos featuring a picture of a heart as a symbol for the verb love, like that of the famous ‘I ♥ NY’ tourism campaign. Our earliest quote for this use, from 1984, uses the verb in ‘I heart my dog’s head’, a jokey play on bumper stickers featuring a heart and a picture of the face of a particular breed of dog (expressing a person’s enthusiasm for, say, shih-tzus) which itself became a popular bumper sticker.  From these beginnings, heart v. has gone on to live an existence in more traditional genres of literature as a colloquial synonym for ‘to love’.


From a land down under

The OED aims to cover lexical developments from throughout the English-speaking world. In this update, a few new items from Australian English enter the dictionary for the first time: flat white  n., a style of espresso drink with finely textured foamed milk; tragic n., a ‘boring or socially inept person, esp. one with an obsessive interest or hobby’; and yidaki n., an Australian Aboriginal term for the musical instrument better known in English as a didgeridoo.

Mad hatters

The new entry for tinfoil hat  n. recounts how the shiny chapeau began its life with only festive connotations. However, in 1986, just over a century after its first attestation as an innocent party favour, the tinfoil hat migrated to a more sinister milieu, popularly associated with conspiracy theories suggesting that such headwear could protect the wearer from mind control or surveillance. This association, in turn, led to the development of a depreciative attributive use, designating people regarded as paranoid or delusional, and to the adjectival compound tinfoil-hat-wearing, also included in this update.

Figures of speech

There are two main types of muffin in the English-speaking world: the flat round yeasted variety (known in North America as an English muffin), and the traditional American type, small cakes baked in cup-shaped tins and having a characteristic cap where the batter rises above the rim. It is to this latter sort that OED’s new entry for muffin top n. refers, denoting in its first sense the top portion of such a muffin, or sometimes a muffin cooked in a special shallow tin so that it consists exclusively of this top part, without the soggy bottom whose relative undesirability once inspired an episode of Seinfeld. The second sense is figurative, referring to a protuberance of flesh above the waistband of a tight pair of trousers (cf. spare tyre n., love handle n.), which may sometimes be attributed to an excessive appreciation for muffin tops in the literal sense.

The vocabulary of drunkenness is immense, and has been since at least the time of the famous Drinker’s Dictionary (1737) in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. To that vast lexicon we now add the term lashed  adj., along with the complementary phrase on the lash (engaged in a bout of drinking).  Which of these terms came first remains uncertain. As is often the case for items which developed in spoken language, the written evidence probably lags behind the oral usage; the earliest example editors were able to find for lashed (1997) just edges out on the lash (1998), but further research could reverse that order.

Other colourful slang and colloquial terms entering the dictionary in this update include cream-crackered adj. (rhyming slang for ‘knackered’, that is exhuasted); smack talk n. (boastful or insulting banter); fnarr fnarr int. and adj (a representation of a lecherous snigger popularized in the comic magazine Viz and used adjectivally to denote crude sexual innuendo); pap n. 5 and v.3, shortenings of paparazzo; dot-bomb n. (a failed internet company); and couch surfing  n. (the practice of spending the night on other people’s couches in lieu of permanent housing).
Also in this update:

Katherine Connor Martin, OED


List of new words

In addition to revised versions of Second Edition entries, the following new words were added:

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

In addition to the new entries, a number of senses were added to words across the alphabet: