Thursday, August 21, 2003

The world’s most monumental dictionary has gotten very hip indeed.

The new 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary published yesterday offers a nimble dash through the trite and traumatic, the grim and the gracious — offering right proper definitions for terms yanked from the news media, cyberspace, Hollywood, science, warfare and even the beauty parlor.

The 22,000-page, 500,000-word “OED” features an update on the noun “Brazilian,” which has little to do with Brazil, but a great deal to do with strategic hair removal and new styles in feminine undergarments.

“Brazilian” is just one of 3,000 new entries. There’s also “blonde moment” and “bootylicious,” “da bomb” and “daisy cutter,” which is a real bomb, a bunker-busting weapon that fell into the vernacular during the war in Afghanistan.

Harry Potter fans will recognize “muggle,” or someone lacking in a specific skill. “Saddlebags” are now found on women’s hips rather than horses. “WMD” and “24/7” have also been deemed worthy of inclusion.

“Our language is transforming,” publishing manager Judy Pearsall said. “We closely monitor the changes that are taking place.”

And monitor they do: comic books, movie scripts, news reports, menus, novels, Web jargon, and research papers are not immune from the roving eyes of OED wordsmiths.

Don’t forget “bada bing,” which the OED classifies as an exclamation, also found in the form “bada bing bada boom.” It’s something that “will happen effortlessly and predictably,” the definition explains; the origin is “probably imitating the sound of a drumroll.”

And yes, the OED does credit HBO’s “The Sopranos” for popularizing the phrase, which appears without a hyphen. But the OED makes it official: the hyphen isn’t what it used to be.

“Overall, the hyphen is now used only half as much as it was in 1993,” the OED explains, noting that “e-mails” is now “emails.” It does allow “lose-lose,” “ob-gyn,” “bake-off” and “T-bone,” however.

This trend is bothering some British observers who take issue with a hyphen-free zone, claiming it is a result of further Americanization of proper English. Things are just getting too casual or commercialized, noted editorials in the Times of London and other papers.

“Demands from the modern design and advertising industries for uncluttered logos could be helping to kill the English hyphen and murder the apostrophe,” the Guardian complained yesterday.

Indeed, the polite little possessive mark may be on its way out.

“The apostrophe is disappearing from where you would expect it,” the OED states, citing “lets go” as an acceptable form.

Yet for all its new hipness, the OED is heavy with history. While it culls 20 percent of its words from 20th century usage, it takes 31 percent from the 19th century.

While various percentages are taken from the first through 18th centuries, a full 1 percent of the content originates in the 13th century — about 5,000 words.

But the words come and go. A staff of 320 scholars and researchers has been retooling the OED for a decade, revising 25 percent of it after considerable academic angst. It has been “thorough” and “painstaking,” the OED notes in a history posted at its complicated Web site (

Yet they are still open to suggestions. Anyone can submit a word for consideration, as long as written references for it are also provided.

The dictionary-makers are hip in another way, however: They’re having a sale. The 20-volume set, normally priced at $3,000, can be had until year’s end for a mere $895 — eagerly described as “its lowest price ever!”

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