What's in a word? When did we start going to the loo?

Our language is full of terms whose origins have been lost in time. Now the Oxford English Dictionary wants the public to help identify their hidden origins. Louise Jury reports

Wednesday 03 January 2007 01:00

Did anyone go "dogging" before 1993, have a "domestic" prior to 1963 or go the "loo" before 1940? Because the Oxford English Dictionary wants to know.

In an attempt to extend its understanding of the roots of some popular words and phrases in the nation's vocabulary, the dictionary is seeking public help. The OED's editors have come up with 40 usages whose origins are either unknown or uncertain.

And in a new series of the BBC2 show Balderdash & Piffle to be broadcast this spring, the presenter Victoria Coren will call on the public to suggest new theories for possible inclusion in future editions.

Current puzzles include who exactly Gordon Bennett was and why he became a mild expletive and whether Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset was really the birthplace of the "marital aid".

Viewers will be asked to trawl through unpublished papers, old magazines and even dated postcards to find earlier appearances of words including " wally," "wassock" and "tosser" than those examples already cited in the dictionary.

Last year, Balderdash & Piffle viewers provided information which is being used to update listings for phrases including "ploughman's lunch," "the full monty" and the "ninety-nine" ice-cream.

John Simpson, chief editor of the OED at Oxford University Press, said: "Wordhunters made some remarkable discoveries in the last series. They found words tucked away in football fanzines, LPs, school newspapers - just the sort of sources we can't easily get our hands on when we're researching words.

"It's great that the long-established democratic traditions of the dictionary are continuing. Our first public appeal went out in 1859 and we've been busy collecting information every since. We've selected 40 words that are puzzling the OED's editors for the new wordhunt and we're hoping for some more great results."

If you have information to contribute to the project, you can contact the compilers on bbc.co.uk/balderdash


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1959.

According to the OED, people have been kinky since 1898 but until 1959 that appears to have meant they were a little eccentric. Absolute Beginners, the book by Colin MacInnes that was made into a film, was the first recorded use of the word as meaning sexually adventurous. If anyone has evidence of earlier usage, the etymologists want to hear from them.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1990.

While a hoodie was a kind of crow 200 years ago, it is now a term commonly applied to hooded tops worn by joggers, boxers and young people. The term is first recorded by the OED in Roddy Doyle's novel The Snapper, which was published in 1990 and turned into a film three years later.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1969 and information on the origins of the word.

The original sense of the word "prat", first used around AD1000, was a trick or a prank. Later it came to mean buttock or even hip pocket. But the OED wants to know more about when prat came to mean a fool. The earliest reference so far is from 1969 in the novel Without a City Wall by Melvyn Bragg.

The Dog's Bollocks

Wanted: verifiable evidence of use before 1989.

According to the OED, "the cat's whiskers" and the "bee's knees" have both referred to the acme of excellence since 1923 but the coarser "dog's bollocks" does not appear until 1989 when it was used in the British adult comic Viz to introduce its "best of issues 26 to 31". It was subsequently deployed by the British director Andrea Arnold when she won an Oscar in 2005. The experts want to know if there is evidence of earlier usage.

Glasgow Kiss

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1987.

The term for a headbutt draws humorously on the Scottish city's reputation for violence and is first cited by the OED in 1987 in an article in the Financial Times. But the existence of a "Liverpool kiss" predating this by 43 years has made the OED etymologists consider its history and whether there are other variations they should know about.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1973.

One of many euphemisms for excrement, its first recorded use was in a script for the comedy Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em starring Michael Crawford. But experts wonder whether it was a term already in popular use.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1959.

The OED first records this abbreviation of stiletto heel in an article in the New Statesman in 1959. But experts think it is likely to have been used earlier in a more fashion-orientated publication or catalogue. The " stiletto heel" appeared in fashion coverage from 1953.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1940; information on origins.

Etymologists are puzzled over the origins of "loo" for lavatory. James Joyce may be responsible, in Ulysses: "Oh yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset."


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1977.

The verb "to toss off," in the sense of masturbation, dates back to the 19th century, but the earliest recorded example of its use as a term of abuse is in 1977 when it appeared in ZigZag, a British rock magazine.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1993.

The Sun exposed the participation of the footballer Stan Collymore in dogging - having sex with strangers, or watching others have sex, in public places - but there is evidence of the term from 1993. Its origins are uncertain. Is there a link with the verb "to dog", as in pursue closely, or do those taking part use walking the dog as an excuse? Not in the dictionary.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1966

The OED has an example of "plonker" as an insult in the 1966 novel, All Neat in Black Stockings by Jane Gaskell, and an earlier one where it means a penis, but would like to know more. In common with many other good insults, "plonker" sounds amusing, which, the experts suggest, is thanks to its relationship with the verb "to plonk". The word enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s when it was Del Boy's put-down of choice to his brother, Rodney, in the hit television show Only Fools and Horses.


Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1952 and information on the word's origin.

"Wolf" has been used to describe a sexually aggressive male since William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair in 1847, but the OED has found no examples before 1952 of this description of men whistling to express sexual admiration.

Pole Dance

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1992

People have danced around poles for centuries, notably in May-time, but the OED cites the first use of "pole dance" meaning an erotic dance or striptease while moving around a specially constructed pole in the Chicago Tribune in 1992. But was it used before then?

Regime Change

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1990.

The term originally referred to a simple change of government, but has more recently become a euphemism for the forceful overthrow of a hostile or unwelcome foreign government. The first example of this euphemistic usage cited by the OED dates from 1990 and was used in connection with American activity in Nicaragua.

Glamour Model

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1981.

The first recorded example is in an advert in The Times in 1981 from a business "looking for new faces for fashion, photographic and glamour modelling". What is not clear is whether nude and topless models wanted a more decorous job title or whether tabloids invented the euphemism.

Gordon Bennett

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1967; information on the origin of the phrase.

There was a famous and flamboyant 19th century media magnate, sportsman and playboy called Gordon Bennett. But the earliest evidence for the expression is not before 1967, long after Bennett's death in 1918, in a script for the television series Till Death Us Do Part. The OED wants to know more about the phrase and its use as a mild expletive.

Marital Aid

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1976.

An advert in the local Gazette in the Somerset seaside town of Burnham-on-Sea in 1976 has furnished the first use meaning sex toys whereby "marital aid appliances" are offered to "help you put more life into loving". But the OED is eager to hear from anyone who can recall adverts using this rather prim and proper euphemism prior to that.

To take the Mickey

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1948 and information on its origins.

The OED is not certain, but believes this may be cockney rhyming slang honouring a Mike or Mickey Bliss. But the experts want to know more about anyone with that name to establish the source of the phrase meaning to behave or speak mockingly. Several versions of the expression arose in the 1930s and 1940s. "To take the Mike" seems to have come first in 1935, followed by "take the piss" in 1945, with "taking the Mickey" not appearing until 1948.

Blody Mary

Wanted: verifiable evidence before 1956; information about its origins.

It is said that this vodka and tomato juice cocktail was first served in Harry's Bar in Paris in the 1920s, but the OED cites its first reference in Punch magazine in 1956. Is the name an acknowledgment to Bloody Queen Mary I?

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