[lit-ideas] Cyber-Neologoliferation

  • From: JimKandJulieB@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 5 Nov 2006 20:00:12 EST

(Courtesy of a lurker on the list)
November 5, 2006

When I got to John Simpson and his band of lexicographers in Oxford earlier  
this fall, they were working on the P’s. Pletzel, plish, pod person,  
point-and-shoot, polyamorous — these words were all new, one way or another.  
They had 
been plowing through the P’s for two years but were almost done (except  that 
they’ll never be done), and the Q’s will be “just a twinkle of an eye,” 
Simpson said. He prizes patience and the long view. A pale, soft-spoken man of  
middle height and profound intellect, he is chief editor of the Oxford English 
 Dictionary and sees himself as a steward of tradition dating back a century 
and  a half. “Basically it’s the same work as they used to do in the 19th 
century,”  he said. “When I started in 1976, we were still working very 
much on 
these index  cards, everything was done on these index cards.” He picked up a 
stack of  6-inch-by-4-inch slips and riffled through them. A thousand of these 
slips were  sitting on his desk, and within a stone’s throw were millions 
more, filling  metal files and wooden boxes with the ink oftwo centuries, 
words, words.  
But the word slips have gone obsolete now, as Simpson well knows. They are  
treeware (a word that entered the O.E.D. in September as “computing slang, 
freq.  humorous”). Blog was recognized in 2003, dot-commer in 2004, 
metrosexual in 
2005  and the verb Google last June. Simpson has become a frequent  and 
accomplished Googler himself, and his workstation connects to a vast and  
interlocking set of searchable databases, a better and better approximation of  
might be called All Previous Text. The O.E.D. has met the Internet, and  
much Simpson loves the O.E.D.’s roots and legacy, he is leading a  
revolution, willy-nilly — in what it is, what it knows, what it sees. The  
language, spoken by as many as two billion people in every country on  earth, 
entered a period of ferment, and this place may be the best  observation 
platform available. The perspective here is both intimate and  sweeping. In its 
early days, the O.E.D. found words almost exclusively in books;  it was a 
of the formal written language. No longer. The language upon  which the 
lexicographers eavesdrop is larger, wilder and more amorphous; it is a  great, 
swirling, expanding cloud of messaging and speech: newspapers, magazines,  
pamphlets; menus and business memos; Internet news groups and chat-room  
and television and radio broadcasts.  
The O.E.D. is unlike any other dictionary, in any language. Not simply  
because it is the biggest and the best, though it is. Not just because it is 
supreme authority. (It wears that role reluctantly: it does not presume, or  
deign, to say that any particular usage or spelling is correct or incorrect; it 
aims merely to capture the language people use.) No, what makes the O.E.D.  
unique is a quality for which it can only strive: completeness. It wants every  
word, all the lingo: idioms and euphemisms, sacred or profane, dead or alive, 
 the King’s English or the street’s. The O.E.D. is meant to be a perfect 
record,  perfect repository, perfect mirror of the entire language.  
James Murray, the editor who assembled the first edition through the final  
decades of the 19th century, was really speaking of the language when he said,  
in 1900: “The English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the 
creation  of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly 
developed  itself adown the ages.” And developing faster nowadays. The O.E.D. 
tries to 
 grasp the whole arc of an ever-changing history. Murray knew that with “adown
”  he was using a word that could be dated back to Anglo-Saxon of the year 
975.  When John Updike  begins his New Yorker review of the new John le  Carré 
novel by saying, “Hugger-mugger is part of life,” it is the  O.E.D. that 
us the first recorded use of the word, in 1529 (“... not  alwaye whyspered in 
hukermoker,” Sir Thomas More) and 27 more quotations from  four different 
centuries. But when The New York Times prints a timely editorial  about “sock 
puppets,” meaning false identities assumed on the Internet, the  O.E.D. has 
work to do.  
The version now under way is only the Àhird edition. The first, containing  
414,825 words in 10 weighty volumes, was presented to King George V and  
President Coolidge in 1928. Several “supplements” followed, but not till 
1989  did 
the second edition appear: 20 volumes, totaling 21,730 pages. It weighed 138  
pounds. The third edition is a mutation. It is weightless, taking its shape in 
 the digital realm. To keyboard it, Oxford hired a team of 150 typists in  
Florida for 18 months.  (That was before the verb keyboard had even found its 
way in, as Simpson points  out, not to mention the verb outsource.) No one can 
say for sure whether O.E.D.3  will ever be published in paper and ink. By the 
point of decision, not before 20  years or so, it will have doubled in size yet 
again. In the meantime, it is  materializing before the world’s eyes, bit by 
bit, online. It is a thoroughgoing  revision of the entire text. Whereas the 
second edition just added new words and  new usages to the original entries, 
the current project is researching and  revising from scratch — preserving 
history but aiming at a more coherent  whole.  
The revised installments began to appear online in the year 2000. Simpson  
chose to begin the revisions not with the letter A but with M. Why? It seems 
 original O.E.D. was not quite a seamless masterpiece. Murray did start at A, 
 logically, and the early letters show signs of the enterprise’s immaturity. 
The  entries in A tended to be smaller, with different senses of a word 
crammed  together instead of teased lovingly apart in subentries. “It just 
took them 
a  long time to sort out their policy and things,” Simpson says, “so if we 
started  at A, then we’d be making our job doubly difficult. I think they’d 
sorted  themselves out by. ...” He stops to think. “Well, I was going to 
say D, 
but  Murray always said that E was the worst letter, because his assistant, 
Henry  Bradley, started E, and Murray always said that he did that rather 
badly. So  then we thought, ‘’Maybe it’s safe to start with G, H. But you 
get to G 
and H,  and there’s I, J, K, and you know, you think, well, start after 
So the first wave of revision encompassed 1,000 entries from M to mahurat.  
The rest of the M’s, the N’s and the O’s have followed in due course. 
why, at the end of 2006, John Simpson and his lexicographers are working on 
the  P’s. Their latest quarterly installment, in September, covers pleb to 
Pomak.  Simpson mentions rather proudly that they scrambled at the last instant 
 update the entry for Pluto when the International  Astronomical Union voted 
to rescind its planethood. Pluto had entered the second  edition as “1. A 
small planet of the solar system ... ” discovered in 1930 and  “2. The name 
of a 
cartoon dog ...” first appearing in 1931. The Disney meaning was more stable, 
it turns  out. In O.E.D.3, Pluto is still a dog but merely “a small planetary 
Even as they revise the existing dictionary  in sequence, the O.E.D. 
lexicographers are adding new words wherever they find  them, at an 
accelerating pace. 
Beside the P’s, September’s freshman class  included agroterrorism, 
(a body part), beer pong (a drinking game),  bippy (as in, you bet your — ), 
chucklesome, cypherpunk, tuneage and wonky.  Every one of these underwent 
intense scrutiny. The addition of a new word is a  solemn matter.  
“Because it’s the O.E.D.,” says Fiona McPherson, a new-words editor, 
something goes in, it cannot ever come out again.” In this respect, you could 
 say that the O.E.D. is a roach motel (added March 2005: “Something from 
which it  may be difficult or impossible to be extricated”). A word can go 
obs. or 
rare,  but the editors feel that even the most ancient and forgotten words 
have a way  of coming back — people rediscover them or reinvent them — and 
anyway, they are  part of the language’s history.  
The new-words department, where that history rolls forward, is not to  
everyone’s taste. “I love it, I really love it,” McPherson says. 
“You’re at the  
cutting edge, you’re dealing with stuff that’s not there and you’re, I 
suppose,  shaping the language. A lot of people are more interested in the 
stuff;  they like nothing better than reading through 18thcentury texts looking 
for the  right word. That doesn’t suit me as much, I have to say.” Cutting 
edge,  incidentally, is not a new word: according to the O.E.D., H. G. Wells 
it in  its modern sense in 1916.  
As a rule, a neologism needs five years of solid evidence for admission to  
the canon. “We need to be sure that a word has established a reasonable 
of longevity,” McPherson says. “Some things do stick around that you would 
never  expect to stick around, and then other things, you think that will 
definitely be  around, and everybody talks about it for six months, and then. 
Still, a new word as of September is bada-bing: American slang “suggesting  
something happening suddenly, emphatically, or easily and predictably.” 
Sopranos” gets no credit. The historical citations begin with a 1965 audio  
recording of a comedy routine by Pat Cooper and continue with newspaper  
clippings, a television news transcript and a line of dialogue from the first  
Godfather” movie: “You’ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! you 
their brains all over your nice Ivy  League suit.” The lexicographers also 
provide an etymology, a  characteristically exquisite piece of guesswork: 
uncertain. Perh.  imitative of the sound of a drum roll and cymbal clash.... 
Perh. cf. Italian  bada bene mark well.” But is bada-bing really an official 
part of the English  language? What makes it a word? I can’t help wondering, 
it comes down to  it, isn’t bada-bing (also badda-bing, badda badda bing, 
badabing, badaboom) just  a noise? “I dare say the thought occurs to editors 
time to time,” Simpson  says. “But from a lexicographical point of view, 
re interested in the  conventionalized representation of strings that carry 
meaning. Why, for example,  do we say Wow! rather than some other string of 
letters? Or Zap! Researching  these takes us into interesting areas of 
comic-magazine and radio-TV-film  history and other related historical fields. 
And it 
often turns out that they  became institutionalized far earlier than people 
nowadays may think.”  
When Murray began work on O.E.D.1, no one had any idea how many words were  
there to be found. Probably the best and most comprehensive dictionary of  
English was American, Noah Webster’s: 70,000 words. That number was a base 
Where were the words to be discovered? For the first editors it went almost  
without saying that the source, the wellspring, should be the literature of the 
 language. Thus it began as a dictionary of the written language, not the 
spoken  language. The dictionary’s first readers combed Milton and 
(still  the single most quoted author, with more than 30,000 references), 
Fielding and  Swift, histories and sermons, philosophers and poets. “A 
readers are  wanted,” Murray announced in his famous 1879 public appeal. 
later  16th-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books 
to be  read. The 17th century, with so many more writers, naturally shows 
still more  unexplored territory.” He considered the territory to be large, 
ultimately  finite.  
It no longer seems finite. “We’re painting the Forth Bridge!” says 
Bernadette  Paton, an associate editor. “We’re running the wrong way on a 
(I  get the first part — “allusion to the huge task of maintaining the 
painted  surfaces of the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth” — but I 
have to 
ask  about travolator. Apparently it’s a moving sidewalk.)  
The O.E.D. is a historical dictionary, providing citations meant to show the  
evolution of every word, beginning with the earliest known usage. So a key 
task,  and a popular sport for thousands of volunteer word aficionados, is 
antedating:  finding earlier citations than those already known. This used to 
painstakingly slow and chancy. When Paton started in new words, she found  
herself struggling with headcase. She had current citations, but she says she  
felt sure it must be older, and books were of little use. She wandered around  
the office muttering headcase, headcase, headcase. Suddenly one of her  
colleagues started singing: “My name is Bill, and I’m a headcase/They 
making up on my face.” She perked up.  
“What date would that be?” she asked.  
“I don’t know, it’s a Who song,” he said, “1966 probably, something 
So “I’m a Boy,” by P. Townshend, became the O.E.D.’s earliest citation 
Antedating is entirely different now: online databases have opened the  
floodgates. Lately Paton has been looking at words starting with pseudo-.  
Searching through databases of old newspapers and historical documents has  
her view of them. “I tended to think of pseudo- as a prefix that just  took 
in the 60’s and 70’s, but now we find that a lot of them go back much  
earlier than we thought.” Also in the P’s, poison pen has just been 
antedated  with 
a 1911 headline in The Evening Post in Frederick, Md. “You get the sense  
that this sort of language seeps into local newspapers first,” she says. 
would never in a million years have sent a reader to read a small newspaper 
The job of a new-words editor felt very different precyberspace, Paton says:  
“New words weren’t proliferating at quite the rate they have done in the 
last 10  years. Not just the Internet, but text messaging and so on has created 
lots and  lots of new vocabulary.” Much of the new vocabulary appears online 
long before  it will make it into books. Take geek. It was not till 2003 that 
O.E.D.3 caught  up with the main modern sense: “a person who is extremely 
devoted to and  knowledgeable about computers or related technology.” 
chitchat provides  the earliest known reference, a posting to a Usenet 
net.jokes, on  Feb. 20, 1984.  
The scouring of the Internet for evidence — the use of cyberspace as a  
language lab — is being systematized in a program called the Oxford English  
Corpus. This is a giant body of text that begins in 2000 and now contains more  
1.5 billion words, from published material but also from Web sites,  Weblogs, 
chat rooms, fanzines, corporate home pages and radio transcripts. The  corpus 
sends its home-built Web crawler out in search of text, raw material to  show 
how the language is really used.  
I’m too embarrassed to ask the lexicographers if they have a favorite word.  
They get that a lot. Peter Gilliver tells me his anyway: twiffler. A twiffler, 
 in case you didn’t know, is a plate intermediate in size between a dinner 
plate  and a bread plate. “I love it because it fills a gap,” Gilliver 
says. “I 
also  love it because of its etymology. It comes from Dutch, like a lot of 
ceramics  vocabulary. Twijfelaar means something intermediate in size, and it 
comes from  twijfelen, which means to be unsure. It’s a plate that can’t 
up its mind!”  
Fiona McPherson gives me mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, as in, 
 “Lead on, O kinky turtle.” It is named after Lady Mondegreen. There was no 
Lady  Mondegreen. The lines of a ballad, “They hae slain the Earl of 
Murray,/And laid  him on the green” are misheard as “They have slain the 
Earl of 
Murray and Lady  Mondegreen.”  
“A lot of people are just really excited by that word because they think it’
s  amazing that there is a word for that concept,” McPherson says. I have my 
own  favorites among the newest entries in O.E.D.3. Pixie dust is, as any child 
 knows, “an imaginary magical substance used by pixies.” Air kiss is 
with  careful anatomical instructions plus a note: “sometimes with the 
connotation  that such a gesture implies insincerity or affectation.”  
Builder’s bum is reportedly Brit. and colloq., “with allusion to the  
perceived propensity of builders to expose inadvertently this part of the 
It is clear that the English of the O.E.D. is no longer the purely written  
language, much less a formal or respectable English, the diction recommended by 
 any authority. Gilliver, a longtime editor who also seems to be the O.E.D.’s 
 resident historian, points out that the dictionary feels obliged to include  
words that many would regard simply as misspellings.  
No one is particularly proud of the new entry as of December 2003 for  
nucular, a word not associated with high standards of diction. “Bizarrely, I 
amazed to find that the spelling n-u-c-u-l-a-r has decades of history,” 
 says. “And that is not to be confused with the quite different word, 
nucular,  meaning ‘of or relating to a nucule.’ ” There is even a new 
entry for 
miniscule;  it has citations going back more than 100 years. Yet the very 
of correct  and incorrect spelling seems under attack. In Shakespeare’s day, 
there was no  such thing: no right and wrong in spelling, no dictionaries to 
consult. The word  debt could be spelled det, dete, dett, dette or dept, and no 
one would complain.  
Then spelling crystallized, with the spread of printing. Now, with mass  
communication taking another leap forward, spelling may be diversifying again,  
spellcheckers notwithstanding. The O.E.D. so far does not recognize  
straight-laced, but the Oxford English Corpus finds it outnumbering  
Similarly for just desserts.  
To explain why cyberspace is a challenge for the O.E.D. as well as a godsend, 
 Gilliver uses the phrase “sensitive ears.”  
“You know we are listening to the language,” he says. “When you are 
listening  to the language by collecting pieces of paper, that’s fine, but 
now it’s 
as if  we can hear everything said anywhere. Members of some tiny 
English-speaking  community anywhere in the world just happen to commit their 
communications to  the Web: there it is. You thought some word was obsolete? 
Actually, no, 
it still  survives in a very small community of people who happen to use the 
Web — we can  hear about it.”  
In part, it’s just a problem of too much information: a small number of  
lexicographers with limited time. But it’s also that the O.E.D. is coming 
face  to 
face with the language’s boundlessness.The universe of human discourse always 
 has backwaters. The language spoken in one valley was a little different 
from  the language of the next valley and so on. There are more valleys now 
ever,  but they are not so isolated. They find one another in chat rooms and 
on blogs.  When they coin a word, anyone may hear.  
Neologisms can be formed by committee: transistor, Bell Laboratories, 1948.  
Or by wags: booboisie, H. L. Mencken, 1922. But most arise through spontaneous 
 generation, organisms appearing in a petrie dish, like blog (c. 1999). If 
there  is an ultimate limit to the sensitivity of lexicographers’ ears, no 
has yet  found it. The rate of change in the language itself — particularly 
process  of neologism — has surely shifted into a higher gear now, but away 
from  dictionaries, scholars of language have no clear way to measure the 
process.  When they need quantification, they look to the dictionaries.  
“An awful lot of neologisms are spur-of-the-moment creations, whether it’s  
literary effect or it’s conversational effect,” says Naomi S. Baron, a 
linguist  at American University, who studies these issues. “I could probably 
on the  fingers of a hand and a half the serious linguists who know anything 
about the  Internet. That hand and a half of us are fascinated to watch how the 
Internet  makes it possible not just for new words to be coined but for 
neologisms to  spread like wildfire.”  
It’s partly a matter of sheer intensity. Cyberspace is an engine driving  
change in the language. “I think of it as a saucepan under which the 
has been turned up,” Gilliver says. “Any word, because of the 
interconnectedness  of the English-speaking world, can spring from the 
backwater. And they 
are still  backwaters, but they have this instant connection to ordinary, 
everyday  discourse.” Like the printing press, the telegraph and the 
before it,  the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting 
information  differently. And what makes cyberspace different from all previous 
information  technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the 
smallest  without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to 
groups,  instant messaging one to one.  
So anyone can be an O.E.D. author now. And, by the way, many try. “What  
people love to do is send us words they’ve invented,” Bernadette Paton 
guiding me through a windowless room used for storage of old word slips. Will  
you put the word I have invented into one of your dictionaries? is a question 
 the _AskOxford.com_ (http://askoxford.com/)  FAQ. All the submissions go 
into the files, and until  there is evidence for some general usage, that’s 
the annabes remain.  
Don’t bother sending in FAQ. Don’t bother sending in wannabes. They’re 
even particularly new. For that matter, don’t bother sending in anything you  
find via Google. “Please note,” the O.E.D.’s Web site warns solemnly, 
“it is 
 generally safe to assume that examples found by searching the Web, using 
search  engines such as Google, will have already been considered by O.E.D. 
James Gleick, the author, most recently, of “Isaac Newton,” is  working on 
book about the history of  information.

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