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From Mrs Robinson to asshat: the latest entries in the Oxford English Dictionary

  • The latest revision adds 1,400 entries, many of which are related to cinema
  • Phrases from popular culture are added as long as they stand the test of time
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 6:59pm

XXX, Mrs Robinson, and Tarantinoesque.

These are among the 1,400-plus new entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the world’s most authoritative record of the English language, during its latest revision this October.

Why Hong Kong should start its own Cantonese Academy

Many are related to film, since that is one of the themes the editorial team is focusing on – a fundamental change in the way they approach neologisms (newly coined words or expressions).

English film critic Mark Kermode was enlisted as special consultant to look over the cinematic entries, which include the filmmaking jargon “Foley”, the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to videos to enhance audio quality; terms such as “scream queen”, which refers to an actress noted for her roles in horror films; and phrases from famous film quotes like “not in Kansas any more” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939), which means to be in an unfamiliar place or situation, undergoing a new experience; and names of characters, such as the alluring Mrs Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft in The Graduate in 1967. (“Mrs Robinson, you are trying to seduce me, aren’t you?”). The term was also popularised by singer-songwriters Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack to the film.

“A lot of people would know the cultural meaning of Mrs Robinson, a middle-aged attractive woman who couldn’t help falling in love or having a sexual relationship with a much younger man. It’s known from The Graduate,” says Franky Lau Ho-yin, head of dictionary publishing for the Oxford University Press in China.

“When we decide to include a word, that particular phrase should be sufficient enough to reflect the linguistic, historical or social significance,” he adds.

Published four times a year, the updates used to be done in alphabetical order. The Cantonese term “add oil”, for example, was included as a sub entry under the word “add”. Reviewing words starting with S took a very long time, while the letters T, U, V, W took much less time.

On the one hand, vocabularies are extracted from the corpus, a huge data bank of words from various kinds of English materials, news sources and transcripts of spoken English. On the other, lexicographers crowdsource and review submissions from readers, who also provide citations as well as references.

Reviewing words by popular themes rather than alphabetical order is an attempt to provide a more timely response to the public’s suggestions.

Lau says lexicographers consider two main criteria: frequency and time. If a certain term is in vogue, say “MeToo”, it may require a longer period of observation to see if it becomes part of the cultural lexicon or if it’s just a one-hit wonder.

Why Chinese Indonesians and their children are learning Mandarin

Bbesides film related entries, what are some of the other words deemed qualified for inclusion in OED’s vernacular?

As head of content creation, Katherine Connor Martin writes in OED’s blog, terms of contempt are a perennial source of neologisms.

“Asshat” and “assclown” are some examples. According to the OED, both mean a stupid or contemptible person and thus, can be used interchangeably.

But according to the Urban Dictionary (which is not part of the Oxford English Dictionary), there is a subtle difference between the two words. The former refers to “one who has their head up their ass, thus wearing their ass as a hat”, while the latter, according to one definition, is “a person who, while under the influence, makes a complete fool of himself while attempting humour.”

Another word recently added during revisions to “ass” – and more easily misused – is assless. Don’t mistake it for someone without buttocks. Rather, it is used to describe garments which do not cover the buttocks, such as riding chaps (or Kim Kardashian’s trousers).