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Best-ever OED update includes words "twerk," "jeggings," "sext," "intersectionality"


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The Oxford English Dictionary has been updated to include a bevy of fantastic new words, including “twerk,” “jeggings,” “sext,” and “intersectionality.” Check out the list below, along with the OED staff’s comments.

The online Oxford English Dictionary (oed.com) launched on 14 March 2000, and since the OED generally does not add neologisms until they have had some time to establish themselves, the newest words in the early updates tended to be terms that had emerged in the 1990s. Fourteen years on, that has begun to change, and this update contains dozens of items which are not recorded before the 21st century, but which are now widely used in English, including jeggings (2009), photobomb (2008), crowdfund (2008), totes (2005), staycation (2005), and sext (2001).

At the same time, some of the other entries added in this update demonstrate that words which seem new can actually have a surprisingly long history. The most dramatic example of that phenomenon in this update is the word twerk. The use of twerk to describe a type of dancing which emphasizes the performer’s posterior originated in the early 1990s in the New Orleans ‘bounce’ music scene, but the word itself seems to have its origins more than 170 years before. It was in use in English as a noun by 1820 (originally spelled ‘twirk’), referring to ‘a twisting or jerking movement; a twitch’: ‘Really the Germans do allow themselves such twists & twirks of the pen, that it would puzzle any one’ (Charles Clairmont, Letter, 26 Feb. 1820). Verbal use is first attested just a few decades later, and the ‘twerk’ spelling had come about by 1901. The precise origin of the word is uncertain, but it may be a blend of twist or twitch and jerk, with influence from quirk n.1 at the noun and from work v. in reference to the dance.

The language of gender and identity

English has expanded its vocabulary in recent decades to reflect changes in the way that people discuss gender, race, and other aspects of personal identity and social classifications. The word cisgender, designating a person whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him or her at birth (in contrast with transgender), arose in the late 1990s. The prefix cis- derives from Latin, meaning ‘on this side of’, and often forms words in contrast to trans, especially with reference to geographic features (cisalpine/transalpine, cisatlantic/transatlantic, etc.).

The word intersectionality originated in mathematical contexts, but since the late 1980s it has been used to refer to ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage’. Originally used primarily in academic contexts, this word has recently become common in mainstream publications as well.

Global varieties of English

The territorial expansions of the United Kingdom between the late 16th and early 18th centuries, and of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries carried the English language around the world. In each country where English is spoken, whether as the primary national language or as a secondary language alongside others, it has changed and developed in the context of its new surroundings, not only through loanwords, but also through localized neologisms and changes in the usage of common English words.

New Canadian words added in this update include the loanwords depanneur (‘convenience store’), from Canadian French, inukshuk (‘a structure of rough stones stacked in the form of a human figure’), from Eastern Canadian Inuit, and the Italian-English compound mangia-cake (from Italian mangia ‘eat’ and English cake, used by Canadians of Italian descent to refer to a non-Italian). A new Canadian colloquial sense of keener n.2 refers to ‘a person, esp. a student, who is extremely or excessively eager, zealous, or enthusiastic’. The word stagette was first used in U.S. English to refer to a woman attending a social function without a partner, but is now most commonly used in Canada, where it refers to a party given for a woman about to be married (known elsewhere as a bachelorette party or hen night).

The word mahala (for nothing, gratis), from the Nguni and Sotho languages, is attested in South African English from 1941. More recent additions to the South African vocabulary are the slang word zef (common or ‘trashy’), which originated in the 1990s as an abbreviation of Zephyr, a model of Ford car associated with white working-class South Africans, and the term crown birthday—the birthday on which the numeral of one’s age matches that of the day of the month. Neologisms based on the word entrepreneur, like infopreneur and technopreneur, have become increasingly common in English worldwide; tenderpreneur (a blend of tender and entrepreneur) is a recent South African coinage on that model, referring to ‘a person who uses his or her political connections to secure government contracts and tenders for personal advantage’.

The update also includes many words from Philippine English. These include new senses of common English words, like gimmick to mean a night out with friends; loanwords from Spanish (like estafa ‘fraud’) and Tagalog (like barkada ‘group of friends’); and formations in English that are only used in the Philippines, like carnap (‘to steal a car’) and presidentiable (‘a person who is a likely or confirmed candidate for president’). Evidence for these usages is found not only in the Philippines, but also in parts of the United States that have large Filipino populations.

The term batchmate (‘a member of the same graduation class as another’) is used in both Philippine and South Asian English. Other new additions from South Asian English include carcade (‘a motorcade’), dhaba (‘a roadside food stall or restaurant’), the all-purpose Indian English interjection arré, the familiar form of address yaar, from Urdu, multi-starrer (‘a film with an ensemble cast featuring many star performers’), and the use of the word topper to refer to a high-achieving student.

Other additions of note

This update sees yet another term added to the ever-proliferating vocabulary of specialized diets: freegan, derived from a blend of free and vegan, refers to ‘a person who eats discarded food, typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants, for ethical or ecological reasons’; it is also used as an adjective with reference to that practice.

The blasé interjection meh, expressing indifference or a lack of enthusiasm, was probably popularized by the U.S. cartoon series the Simpsons (a powerful influence on the vocabulary of contemporary English), but it was in use online by 1992—two years before it was first uttered on the programme.

The word guerrilla has become well established as the first element in compounds designating ‘activities conducted in an irregular, unorthodox, and spontaneous way, without regard to established conventions, rules, and formalities’. This usage is first recorded from the surprisingly early date of 1888, in the phrase ‘guerrilla advertising’, but it was rare before the latter half of the 20th century. Some of the more common formations are guerrilla theatre (1966), guerrilla art (1970), guerrilla marketing (1971), guerrilla gardening (1973), and, in this century, the textile-based form of street art called guerrilla knitting (also known as yarn bombing or yarnstorming).

Choss is one of many words in this update which are used in the specialized vocabulary of rock climbing and mountaineering. In that context, it refers to ‘friable, crumbly, or loose rock, typically considered unsafe or unpleasant to climb’. The word originated in very different circumstances, however, representing a humorous pronunciation of the word chaos. The OED’s first citation is from a letter written by Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, in 1937: ‘The excellent word our family used to denote the condition of our house when painters, paperers and upholsterers were ravaging it—“choss”. We have been in a state of choss for some time, and the smell of newly painted woodwork was so bad that it gave both of us colds and bronchial coughs.’

New homographs (words with the same spelling but a different meaning and origin) have been added for ship noun and verb, shipping, and shipper. Ship here does not refer to a sea-going vessel—it is short for the word relationship. Shipping refers to ‘the activity of discussing, portraying, or advocating a romantic pairing of two characters who appear in a work of (serial) fiction, esp. when such a pairing is not depicted in the original work’; it can also refer to such a pairing. This usage has become very common in the online world of fandom, where impassioned debates over the merits of particular pairings are common, and has recently made its way into more general use. The word appears to have first arisen in the late 1990s on Usenet newsgroups, with reference to fan interest in a romantic relationship between paranormal investigators Mulder and Scully on The X-Files.

Today the affinity for abbreviation in online communication is often decried, but in the late 19th century it was telegraphy that served as the catalyst for linguistic shortenings. SCOTUS, an acronym for ‘Supreme Court of the United States’, had emerged by 1879 as a telegraphic abbreviation. It was used by newswires into the 20th century, but has entered common usage only recently. POTUS (‘President of the United States’), is more widely known (and was already entered in the OED); it too originated as a telegraphic abbreviation, but apparently slightly later (OED’s first citation is from 1895). In contrast, FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) was never used as a telegraphic abbreviation; it was apparently first used with reference to Nancy Reagan, in the early 1980s.

*Image above: Samuel Johnson was the author of the two-volume book A Dictionary of the English Language, which was the most influential English dictionary from its publication in 1755 until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.