Today’s an exciting day for OUP, as we launch the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. If this were a birth announcement, we’d have to give the vitals: Oxford University Press joyfully announces the arrival of twin volumes, weighing a total of 13.6 pounds (6.2 kilograms), with 3,800 pages, 6 million words of text, more than half a million definitions, and 84,000 illustrative quotations. Welcome to the world, Shorter volumes 1 and 2! (Oh, and your diminutive friend too, the Shorter on CD-ROM.)
As I described last week, the Shorter has a distinguished pedigree dating back to the first edition nearly 75 years ago. Despite all that history, the dictionary has stayed on the cutting edge of language, with more than 2,500 new words introduced for this edition. I could try to pack every sentence this week with all the brand-new words and phrases, but that might be too much oomphy wordsmithery for one column to handle. Instead, I’ll focus on impactful contributions to the Anglosphere in three areas: computing, music, and food.
It’s not surprising that many of the new words relate to computer technology, as so much of contemporary life, from shopping to social networking, is now becoming electronically mediated. And you don’t have to be a hardcore webhead or dot.commer to appreciate the way that online interaction is shaping our language in new ways. We’ve all become increasingly familiar with the artifacts of the Internet age, from 404 errors to blogrolls, from RSS feeds to webinars. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to cybershop today by doing a little e-Baying. Or perhaps you’ve pinged your friends by instant messaging them in real time. All of this vocabulary isn’t restricted to the youthful digerati, either — after all, the Shorter now recognizes the silver surfer, meaning “an elderly person who is a regular or enthusiastic user of the Internet.”
Some of the new techie terms aren’t so obvious to the layman. Not everyone gets to play around with smart dust (“a collection of very small computerized sensors capable of wireless communication, designed to act as a dispersed network”), go on a fly-through (“a computer-animated simulation of what would be seen if one were flying through a particular real or imaginary region”), or use a softphone (“a piece of software that allows the user to make telephone calls over the Internet”). And some of the new items lie on the fringes of legality, like darknet (“a computer network with restricted access that is used chiefly for illegal peer-to-peer file sharing”), dataveillance (“the monitoring of private information about a person or group from their online activities”), and rogue dialing (“the illicit use of software to command a computer to call premium-rate telephone numbers over the Internet”).
Looking at the new musical terms, one gets the feeling that we live in an age of a million different niches to match every particular taste. There’s a subgenre for everyone, from power pop to post-punk to soft rock to shoegazing. But if you don’t want to be accused of rockism, perhaps you should cast your musical net a bit wider. This is a world of global fusions like Afrobeat (“a style of popular music incorporating elements of African music and jazz, soul, and funk”), dangdut (“an Indonesian style of popular music which combines Arab and Malay folk elements with contemporary international music styles”), taarab (“a form of music popular in East Africa which fuses Arabic singing styles with African and Indian popular music), and trova (“a type of popular music of Cuban origin derived from a blend of traditional folk music and rock and characterized by political lyrics”). Certainly you can find countless intriguing alternatives to elevator music!
Food terms are similarly diverse, encompassing a tasting menu that would satisfy the most demanding gourmand. Close to home, you might indulge in comfort food, take in a low-carb snack like a cereal bar, or savor the mouthfeel of items at a finger buffet. But foodies with more international palates will really be in heaven. Sure, words for familiar European cuisines like Italian trip off the tongue: fagioli, fontina, insalata, limoncello, pignoli, pomodoro, and semifreddo. But you’ll also find East Asian treats like bubble tea and Kaffir lime. There’s strong representation from Japanese cookery: dashi, gyoza, izakaya, kaiseki, and tataki, for starters. The multicultural lineup includes everything from Thai nam pla to Maori kai moana, from Moroccan pastilla to Vietnamese pho. And I’m getting hungry just reading about words like albondigas (“small meatballs in Spanish, Mexican, or South American cookery”) and poutine (“a dish of potato chips ['French fries' for North Americans] topped traditionally with cheese curds and gravy”). A word of advice: try not to read the Shorter on an empty stomach!
From this brief sampling of the new Shorter entries, it’s clear that these additions to our language reflect our growing interconnectedness, while at the same time highlighting the heterogeneity of the many cultures that make an impact on contemporary English. Moreover, the new words often reveal a deep sense of delight in the play of language. Speaking of wordplay, I hope you all enjoy solving the Shorter-themed crossword that the Jonesin’ crew has provided us today. And let me leave you with an anagram that Rick Rothstein discovered: “The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” rearranges to spell “Order this grand history of the lexicon.” (Hey, the anagram said it, not me!)
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.