OED Update, Sep 2007

The latest quarterly update of the OED online has been released. This one contains words between proter and purposive, plus a lot of out-of-sequence updates. New words in the range of Ps include Prozac, pubbing, and pupusa (mmmmh...pupusa). New out-of-sequence words include balls-out, chimichanga, and Kuiper belt. The complete list of new additions can be found here. Editor John Simpson has a short essay on the new additions here.

Strangely, the OED continues its policy of not correcting known errors in existing entries. Somehow, the greatest benefit of being online has not sunk into the editors heads. The 1909 misdating of jazz, for example, persists, even though the editorial staff are well aware and have amply verified and documented that this is an error.


A recent ADS-L discussion on the meaning of the word khaki (apparently it is shifting from tan or dun color to mean green) prompted this entry. Khaki is Urdu meaning dusty; khak means dust. It was brought into English via the colonization of India. The word first appears in English in the latter half of the 19th century, in reference to the color of army uniforms. From a 21 July 1857 letter by an H.B. Edwardes:

The whole of the troops here are dressed in khâkee.

Within a few decades, the word was being applied to a type of cloth of that color from which uniforms were made. From E.S. Bridges’ 1879 Round the World in 6 Months:

The troops here are dressed in khaki...It is a kind of strong brown holland, and appears to me to be made of flax.

By the end of the century, khaki was being used to denote a soldier. From an 1899 appearance in Modern Newspaper:

Before daylight the Khakis were at them again.

And from the 5 January 1900 Yorkshire Herald:

Are you...going to...vote solid for our Government? Or may I put it in another way,...will you vote khaki?

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Word Nerds, The

A monthly (more or less) podcast about language by three teachers from the Washington, DC area. Covers a broad spectrum of language issues. Also available for free via iTunes and other podcasting services.


The use of hot to mean excellent or fashionable dates to the mid-19th century. From H.W. Shaw’s 1866 Josh Billings, Hiz Sayings:

I dropt tu sleep, az a snoflake dus on the buzzum ov a silvery Lake, (i have a faint idee that this laste sentense, for lovlaness, kant be beat, handy.) I dreamed a good-sized, hot dream.1

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Hilton v. Hallmark

In yet another case of a celebrity claiming ownership of a commonly used term, the AP reported yesterday that Paris Hilton is suing Hallmark over the use of her likeness and the phrase that’s hot in a greeting card. The card has a photo of Hilton’s head superimposed on a waitress’s body and she is telling a customer not to touch a plate because that’s hot.

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Big Bang

The Big Bang theory is the idea that our universe began in a giant “explosion,” where a primeval singularity suddenly and rapidly began expanding, creating space, time, and matter/energy with it. This happened approximately 13 billion years ago. Throughout the history of the theory, there as been a playful streak exhibited by its proponents, silly names and puns associated with the Big Bang abound.

The name Big Bang was originally a derisive one, coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle who was one of the chief opponents of the theory. But the name caught on and was adopted by proponents, losing its derisive edge.

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Site Improvements

I’ve made some improvements to the navigation within the site. I’ve added alphabetical navigation to the Big List, so it should be easier to surf and find the terms you want. I also changed the format for how the archives of old articles are displayed on the pages; instead of a long list of links that necessitates a lot of vertical scrolling, it’s now a drop-down menu.


Viral Language

4 Sep: Mark Liberman over at Language Log has an excellent discussion of the term viral language.

Prescriptivist’s Corner: Taking Johnson To Task

LEXICO’GRAPHER. n.s. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and signification of words.
—Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

I included this quote in the last newsletter as part of the announcement of the change of the blog/newsletter name from A Way With Words to The Harmless Drudge. The new name is, of course, taken from Johnson’s famed dictionary definition.

But a reader wrote back complaining about the use of that in the definition, and Samuel Johnson or not, this was just plain incorrect. It should be, she said, who busies himself.

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exception that proves the rule

The exception that proves the rule: this may very well be the most misused and misconstrued aphorism in existence. It is seemingly false on its face; an exception disproves rather than proves a rule. Where does the phrase come from and why do we say it?

The origins are in Latin legal maxim, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted). In other words, the fact that an exception exists means that a general rule also exists, e.g., if you see a sign that says “No Parking on Sundays,” you have legal protection in assuming that parking is permitted the other six days. English use of the Latin proverb dates to at least 1640 when Gilbert Watts penned the following in his Bacon’s Advancement and Proficience of Learning:

As exception strengthens the force of a Law in Cases not excepted, so enumeration weakens it in Cases not enumerated.

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