My word, what does it all mean?

Teledildonics, affluenza, kidult ... Some of the additions to the Oxford dictionary are truly baffling. William Hartston tries to decide what they tell us about life in the Nineties
He swills lager and eats in Indian restaurants; she reads Mills & Boon and buys her frocks at Laura Ashley; and they both get about on Rollerblades. That, at any rate, is the picture that emerges of the average British couple of the Nineties from the new volume in the Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series (OUP, pounds 30). With garam masala, korma, bhaji, Madras curry all washed down with a glass of lassi, it looks as though the compilers have decided that Indian food is here to stay. Since Qoorma was first spotted in 1832, and its present spelling dates back at least until 1960, this is clearly a dish our lexicographers have been chewing over for some time. Even so, it has done better than Lymeswold, the ill- fated English blue cheese which was withdrawn from sale in 1992 and only now makes its posthumous entry in the pages of the dictionary. Another thing that went out in 1992 was nineteen ninety-two (which the dictionary helpfully tells us is "usu. written 1992"). It was used to designate the implications of the creation of a single European market and did not arrive until 1993 anyway.

The chaps at Oxford do seem to take their cheese very seriously, with Cambozola also making its first appearance, but you cannot help feeling that they do not really like the stuff when you read their entry for mascarpone. Apparently, the word derives (according to C. Battisti's Dizionaria Etimologico Italiano III, 1975) from the Latin manuscarpere, "to take in the hand, to masturbate". A comparison is suggested with the Southern Italian phrase far ricotta "to masturbate", (literally, "to make ricotta"). Perhaps it is better to stick to English foods, though the compilers seem also to have been unduly cautious about Lancashire hot-pot ("a dish of meat, onion and potato, resembling Irish stew") which finally claims its place 99 years after its first citation.

Back with our hypothetical couple, her Laura Ashleyish and Mills and Boony tastes hardly give her the cred of a true Essex girl. She is probably a bit of a born-again happy-clappy in her spare time. Hardly the sort of bodacious object to induce a feelgood factor in our lager lout's dreams. No wonder that the Oxford lexicographers have decided to add another definition to those already existing for the word marriage. It is now also "an antique object assembled from components differing in provenance, date, etc".

While there is no surprise at seeing such neologisms as chaology, post- structuralism, log-on, e-mail and cyberspace claiming their places in the dictionary, there is also a large number of entries which have evidently been around for a long time (often in medical text-books) but which have only now been deemed worthy of reaching a wider audience. Since we are all so much more comfortable nowadays with talking about our formerly vulg. bodily parts, we are permitted at last to gaze upon the words anococcygeal, anogenital and anorectal (whose first citations date back to 1881, 1909 and 1884 respectively) without feeling guilty. Of the other words beginning with "ano", it is good to see anorak listed with its modern meaning: "slang (derog.) A boring, studious or socially inept young person." This is evidently more derog. than train-spotter which is "a person who enthusiastically studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information".

I have always wondered, incidentally, how lexicographers decided whether something is "derog." or "usu. derog". I am reminded of a recent dictionary of American slang which listed the phrase "bald-headed-chicken-fucker" as "usu. derog". In the new Oxford volume, the only usu. derog. expression I have so far found is fag hag.

Quite apart from the new words, it is good to see so many old words making a comeback. There is a splendid sense of lexicographical anachronism seeing the ancient Molly-house (a public house, tavern or private house used as a meeting place by homosexual men) and fly girl (a lewd or sexually promiscuous young women, esp. a prostitute) jostling for space alongside Stella Gibbons's 1932 invention of mollocking (having sexual intercourse) and the modern bodice-ripper (dating back to 1980) and G-spot (1982).

Perhaps the most up-to-date reference of all, however, comes under the word "labour", where we are told: "Delete Now rare and add later examples." They are talking, of course, about the verb "to labour".

All in all it is a jolly good read, and it is good to see kinkily finally gaining its place more than 40 years after Webster put it in his dictionary, but with road-kill and squeegee bandit in, and road rage still waiting on the pavement, and so many old words included through an apparent change of policy, this will be a disappointment to anyone looking primarily for a snapshot of our language in the late 1990s. Here, however, is a selection of words that do add up to a fair summary of our times:

affluenza: a psychological malaise of the rich, inducing symptoms of guilt and isolation.

aliterate: able to read, but unwilling to do so.

buckminsterfullerene: a stable form of carbon whose 60 carbon atoms form a structure similar to the geodesic dome of the architect Buckminster Fuller.

contragestion: form of birth control effected after fertilization.

cryonics: deep-freezing the bodies of the dead in the hope of unfreezing when a cure was been found for whatever killed them.

daisy chain: a group of dealers who agree to trade amongst themselves in a commodity (usually crude oil) to inflate the price.

denet: to sell a book at a price lower than that fixed under the Net Book Agreement.

dinoturbation: disturbance of layers of sediment by dinosaur trampling.

edutainment: educational entertainment.

electronystagmography: measuring eye movements through electrical activity in the brain as a diagnostic tool.

footballene: a roughly spherical structure formed by 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons - rather like a football.

hypercard: in the 1970s, a trick playing card for magicians; in the late 80s, a combination database and AI tool for computing.

kidult: television programme or film intended to appeal to all ages.

lagerphone: a percussion instrument consisting of beer-bottle tops jangled on a long pole.

lat spread: a body-building pose in which the latissimus dorsi muscles are stretched.

laugher: a game (especially baseball) so easily won as to be absurd.

leaderene: originally a jocular name for Margaret Thatcher, now any female leader, especially a formidable one.

lexigram: a set of symbols representing words, especially those used in the investigation of language acquisition by chimpanzees.

libero: a soccer player who ranges across the field as a last line of defence.

lithotripter: a machine used as an alternative to invasive surgery to generate ultrasound waves and focus them on a chosen site in the body.

magalogue: a promotional catalogue designed to resemble a glossy magazine.

maldeployment: inefficient deployment of manpower or resources.

Marsquake: an earthquake on Mars.

mechatronics: a combination of mechanical engineering and electronics (especially with reference to Japan).

mediagenic: popular with the mass media.

mellowspeak: Bland language associated with psychotherapy and New Age philosophy.

meme: a self-replicating element of culture, passed on by imitation.

me-too: used of a product (especially pharmaceutical) designed to emulate another which has already been commercially successful.

milliprobe: an instrument for analysing small amounts of material.

Ossi: in post-reunification Germany, a citizen of the former German Democratic Republic.

paintball: a war-game in which participants fire balls of bright paint at each other. One stain and you're dead.

pindown: a system formerly operated in certain children's homes whereby children considered difficult to deal with were placed in solitary confinement for long periods.

teledildonics: the proposed use of virtual reality to mediate sexual interaction between computer users operating in different places.

teraflop: a unit of computing speed equal to 1000 gigaflops.

terraforming: transforming a planet into one sufficiently similar to Earth to support terrestrial life.

trophy wife: a wife regarded as a status symbol for a (usually older) man.

Wessi: in post-reunification Germany, a citizen of the former Federal Republic of Germany.

zaitech: investment by a company in financial markets as a means of boosting its earnings.

zouk: a style of popular music from the French Antilles characterised by a strong fast beat.

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