Oxford English Dictionary delivers its verdict on just what is 'pants'

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The Independent Culture

Just 143 years after the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was first conceived, the highest court of British lexicography has finally delivered a verdict on "pants". The new online supplement to the OED dates the contemporary slang definition of the word, as meaning "rubbish or nonsense", to 1994.

"Pants" joins "bad hair day" "New Man", "six-pack" (of muscles), "clubbing" and "ladette" in the latest quarterly update of the electronic OED. John Simpson, chief editor of the dictionary, commented: "My job is the perfect excuse for watching action films, soaps, quiz programmes ­ where the language is busy just now." Yet "clubbing" in its modern form turns out to have started in the World Cup summer of July 1966, when the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" stood at the top of the "hit parade". How groovy is that?

Oxford University Press also trumpets the "huge file of correspondence, queries and attributions" that lie behind the new OED online discussion of "the full monty". The dictionary agrees with most of its competitors in stressing three likely origins for the phrase that, after the 1997 film, came to signify total nudity. They are the 45-card version of a Spanish card game, monte; the full breakfasts scoffed during the Second World War by Field Marshal Montgomery; and (favourite among language experts) the three-piece, Sunday-best suits made by Montague Burton's tailoring firm.

For subscribers to the electronic OED, the full monty consists of an annual subscription of £350 (plus VAT). Each quarterly update contains more than 1,000 new terms and revised entries. The constant labours of a 50-strong staff (as well as an army of volunteers) means that OUP will probably not release a new printed edition until at least 2015.

Meanwhile, slang, allusions and catchphrases can accumulate in its digital storehouse. "We don't actually take things out," said Claire Pemberton of OUP. "But they may get labelled as 'obscure'."

Behind the lexicographers' eagerness to show off a knowledge of street argot lies a tough battle for command of the multimillion-pound global trade in English dictionaries, where OED is traditionally the market leader. Edited for decades by the great Victorian word-hound James Murray, it was finally completed in 1928 after almost 50 years of dogged research.

The second edition came out in 1989, and a range or shorter and specialist volumes now tries to keep Oxford ahead of the pack. But the OED, especially in its concise versions, has met fiercer competition in recent years from rivals such as Chambers, Collins and Encarta. These houses have been fighting hard for a larger share of the lucrative lexicographical action. Hence the regular, media-friendly parade of today's colloquialisms.

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