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 New Words for Old 

Chambers Dictionary 1931


         The worst thing about putting a dictionary together must be when you think you've finished the damn thing, and one of your assistants comes rushing up and says: ‘There's a new word in the papers this week, sir, it's bimbo !’ (or "wannabe" or "supermodel" or "drive by shooting" or any of those things that make our modern age so very special) and you haven't got it in your dictionary. And the only thing you can do is have a little section at the back of the dictionary for late arrivals, words that scramble on to the train while it's leaving the station, a sort of supplement of linguistic asylum seekers.
The great thing about these supplements is that they actually tell you when words first arrived in our language. I have in front of me a copy of Chambers Dictionary of 1931. It's a new edition. The first edition had come out in 1901. At the back of this new edition are all the new words which, in the thirty years between 1901 and 1931, arrived too late to get a proper seat and had to stand in the corridor, and the wonderful thing is that some of these words are so familiar to us you can't imagine them ever being new and some are words which never made it and have utterly vanished.
Slang words, which made it, for a start. "Dither". "Mollycoddle". "Rotter". "To see red". "Fed up with". "Soccer". "Swot". "Hooch". "Booby prize". All new since 1901.

But what about the non-survivors ? "Oncer", for instance. What do you suppose a "oncer" was? It was a person who only attended church once on Sunday. "Nut"? Nowadays a "nut" is a someone who is a bit mad. Not then. Then a "nut" was a young blood. "Penguin"? Surely a Penguin is a paperback or a biscuit? Not then it wasn't. Then she was a member of the Women's Royal Air Force. Called a "Penguin" because she didn't actually fly.
Lots of the other new words in 1931 were also to do with flying, because humans had only just learnt how to fly and were still working out the vocabulary. "Aeroplane" itself was in this transit camp for new words, as were "air raid" and "aileron" and "zoom". "Dud" was defined as a bomb that didn't go off. "Airshed" was where they kept the planes, which I haven't ever heard anyone use in my lifetime. "Airway" was also a new word. It meant an aircraft route. Which airway are you flying ? Nor do we talk about airways any more, except, curiously, in names like "British Airways". And "aerial" was new, though that was not really a flying word, it was a broadcasting word. "Broadcasting" is also a new word, because it was a new thing, as was "lipstick" ("a small cylinder or toilet appliance for putting a cosmetic or rouge on the lips") and "crossword puzzle", and "ecology" and "holism" ("A term coined by the Rt Hon General Smuts in his book 'Holism and Evolution”).
But it's the words that never made it to the end of the century which are fascinating. It's mildly interesting to know that words like "cinema' and "chupati" and "handlebar" and "joy ride" were all new on the scene, but what about "Abderian" ? "Given to unceasing laughter (from Abdera, a town in Greece, birthplace of Democritus, the 'laughing philosopher'). What about Ackemma - "an air mechanic"? What about "Catch-My-Pal Crusade” - a temperance movement started in the north of Ireland in 1909? What about a "minoritaire"? ( A member of a minority section of a party, especially socialists. Tony Benn to the life.) Whatever became of the "megafog", a "fog signal fitted with megaphones pointing in several directions"? What happened to the "plumcot"? ("A fruit obtained by Luther Burbank by crossing a plum and an apricot". )
It's very unusual to know the creator of a name, like Mr Burbank, or Mr Poinsett, who had the Poinsettia named after him just then, or Karel Capek, who invented the word "robot" in 1920. But even having a word named after you is no guarantee of immortality. "To Sherardise - to cover with zinc by heating with zinc dust in absence of air, after Sherard Cowper-Coles, the inventor of the process". Well, sherardising may have been big in 1931, but I have never heard of Sherardising, and I have just looked it up in a big modern dictionary, and - blow me down! There it is! Oxford- AD 20003 - "Sherardising: a process of coating with zinc, named after Sherard Cowper-Coles, who died in 1936".
Sorry, Sherard. You win. If Chambers Dictionary (1931) could cock a snook at me, it would. But it wasn't above cocking a snook even then. There are at least two new entries in 1931, which let a human emotion show through. One is disapproval, as in the definition of jazz: "Jazz: an obstreperous form of ragtime music". Hmmmmm  . . . The other is "Intellectual: a person of superior intellect or enlightenment (often used to suggest doubt as to practical sagacity". Do you know what that was? It was a genuine, 1931, joke.

Word of Mouth Radio 4 Jan 2004

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