Thursday, February 18, 2016


         Both the universe and the English language are expanding


                            Howard Richler

Please refrain from sexting while twerking. While it might be hyphy, fo' shizzle it is both jank and meh.

All the italicized words are recent additions to the OED which in June added almost 1000 new terms to our language. While in the past, the OED's policy was to include neologisms only after they were firmly entenched in our language, many of the additions such as twerk and sext demonstrate that the times they are a changin'.

Perhaps a little translation is in order. Sexting refers to the sending of sexually explicit pictures electronically and twerking is dancing in a provocative manner by thrusting motions of the glutus maximus and the hip. Hyphy means energetic, fo' shizzle comes from the lexicon of hip-hop music and is a variant of “for sure,” whereas jank is a variant of junk that means inferior and meh means uninspiring or mediocre.

I was surprised to discover that twerk had been added because, as a rule, the OED will usually only add a word if it has enjoyed popular use for at least ten years and I associate the word with Miley Cyrus' gyrating motions at the 2013 MTV awards show and it seemed to me that  use of the term abated dramatically by 2014.  In fact, the OED discovered that folks have been twerking for the better part of two centuries, but not necessarily in the lascivious Cyrus mode. In 1820 the word was first used as a noun to refer to a twisting motion as the word is a blend of twist or twitch with jerk and by 1850  the verb form of the word emerged.

Twenty years ago it was unfathomable that we would soon be changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and the OED reflects this revolution in our thinking about personal identity and social classification. For example, the OED made me aware that I am a cisgender person, a word I did not know existed. Cisgender is defined as “designating someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds to the sex and gender assigned to him at birth.” The prefix cis- means “on the side of” and the term cisgender contrasts with transgender.  Racial conceptions have similarly evolved. The term intersectionality originated in mathematical formulations in the 1960s but by 1989 it has been used to the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class…regarded as creating overlapping and independent systems of discrimination and disadvantage.”
In my July/August Lexpert column I pointed out that many familiar Canadian are finally getting OED recognition. This process has continued in the recent additions as these aspects of Canadiana enhance the ever-growing Canadian content of the OED.  Depanneur (convenience store), inukshuk, (a structure of rough stone used by Inuit hunters as a landmark), mangia-cake, (among Italian Canadians, a term for non-Italians),  double double (a cup  of coffee with a double serving of both cream and sugar). Resto-bar, (combined restaurant and bar) was also added and although the term is not exclusive to Canada, the OED's first citation comes from the Montreal Gazette in 1992.

It would also appear that acronyms and initialisms are flourishing judging by some of the new OED additions. I was familiar with POTUS, President of the United States, and SCOTUS, Surpreme Court of the United States but FLOTUS was a new one for me, as was FOMO, fear of missing out and SCBU Special Care Baby Unit, a designation used primarily in Great Britain.

The OED additions also highlight how quickly words can acquire new meanings and then proliferate. A good example is the word “guerilla” which traditionally only designated a paramilitary combatant. The OED explains that since the end of the 20th century it often is used to include “activities conducted in an irregular, unorthodox, and spontaneous way, without regard to established conventions, rules and formalities.” Hence we find guerilla advertising, guerilla art, guerilla gardening, guerilla knitting, guerilla marketing and guerilla theatre, to name but a few of the guerilla flavours. Amazingly, there is a citation for “guerilla advertising” in 1888. Some futuristic soul thought of this structure eighty years before anybody else thought to extend the guerilla metaphor.  Also, new meanings have been added to these words; “Kill”- do something impressively; “lipstick” -  the treble twenty on a dartboard; “chatter” - electronic communication that is monitored by intelligence agencies to combat terrorism and “double-dip,” a term that references two periods of economic decline.

An economic diet is included in the new entries. I refer to freegan which is defined as the “practice of eating discarded food typically collected from the refuse of shops or restaurants for ethical or ecological reasons.” My favourite new diet word was added to the OED in June 2014. I refer to flexitarian that is defined as “a person who follows a primary but not strictly vegetarian. I prefer to define it as a vegetarian who once a year cheats and enjoys a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's.

Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in April 2016.

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