Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


“American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares

“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”

Mark Twain said that as far back as 1897 (Following the Equator, Chapter XXIV). While many Brits continue to entertain the attitude typified (or satirized) by Max Beerbohm:

“He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford.”

Zuleika Dobson, 1911

all of us (i.e. English-speakers) use U.S.-coined words some – if not all – of the time.

Oscar Wilde’s quip “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” really does not apply to so very many words – though the differences between British and U.S. English as indefatigably explored by Lynne Murphy, are still legion.

Twentieth-century “new” words

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m having great fun looking at words that “came into the language” year by year from 1900 onwards, and tweeting one or two a day. To find them, I use “advanced search” in the OED specifying “headword” and a given year. Each year there are usually round 500 such words, and in some years rather more (e.g. 1900: 686), but very occasionally rather fewer (e.g. 1913: 451). [Note that very careful use of fewer, ;-)]

That search excludes words which [yes, oh Word grammar checker, it’s fine to use “which” in a defining clause] acquired new meanings in any year. So, what I end up with is a list of completely new “visitors” (in bird terms) to our language. For each year, I generally look at the first 100, ordered by frequency, and then select 20 or so according to criteria explained in the earlier blog.

Now, while doing this (at the time of writing, I had got up to 1915), I found myself wondering more and more insistently just how many emerged in British English and how many in U.S.English. I was expecting U.S. English to produce the greater number, but my little sample surprised even me.

A 50-word personal sample

I chose 20 words from 1909 and 30 from 1913, thus giving me a nice round figure of 50 to do easy percentages with. The OED lists a few of them as “Orig. U.S.” and variants on that theme. But I had a suspicion that more of them were U.S. than that labelling suggested. I decided to look at the written source which the OED had tracked down as the first record of the word: was it an American journal/newspaper/book, or a British one?

The totals are as follows: U.S. = 33; Brit = 16; other = 1

i.e. 66% of words are first cited in U.S. sources.

Some caveats are in order, of course.

First, several of the OED entries have not been revised for the third edition; different dates and sources may therefore be found.

Second, the fact that a word first appears in a U.S. source does not prove conclusively that it is an American coinage, though it does point strongly in that direction.

And, third, my sample is neither random, nor large enough to prove anything. But it is, to my mind, very suggestive, given that most of these words must surely be considered part of everyday language, rather than technical.

I also labelled the words with a subject field. “Modern life” is a bit of a cop-out, to avoid too many labels; “General language”, as you will see, includes several informal or (once) slangy terms.

“Bull” does not mean what you might think

Hopefully, the abbreviations in the list of sources are self-explanatory. “Bull.”, by the way, means “Bulletin”. Newspapers figure as the first citation for ten words; three appear first in dictionaries.

Finally, some of the first citations are piquant: Winston Churchill for seaplane, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street for lav, P.G. Wodehouse for fifty-fifty, and Arnold Bennett for turn-round. The relevant citations follow the table.

Words are in order of frequency as listed in the OED.  Finally, quite why piggy bank first appears in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette for March 1913 is anyone’s guess.

Headword Year Country Source Field
gene 1909 US Amer. Naturalist science
movies 1909 US Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican entertainment
cinema 1909 Brit Tragedy of the Pyramids entertainment
trade-off 1909 US St. Louis Post-Dispatch  business, economics
coke 1909 US Coca-Cola Bottler (Philadelphia)  modern life
air conditioning 1909 US  Useful Information Cotton Manufacturers modern life
exponentially 1909 US Cent. Dict. Suppl. science
libido 1909 US Freud Sel. Papers on Hysteria psychology
fuselage 1909 Brit Flight transport
empathic 1909 US Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes psychology
multi-party 1909 Brit Englishwoman politics
mindset 1909 US Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods psychology
rite of passage 1909 Brit Folk-Lore anthropology
neo-cortex 1909 Brit Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry psychology
counter-offensive 1909 Brit Daily Chronicle warfare
xenophobia 1909 Brit Athenæum politics
socialite 1909 US Oakland (Calif.) Tribune general language
scrounge 1909 US Webster’s New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. general language
gaffe Brit Pall Mall Gaz. general language
bakelite 1909 US Jrnl. Industr. & Engin. Chem. modern life
isotope 1913 Brit Nature science
close-up 1913


US Technique Photoplay entertainment
Salmonella 1913 Brit Pract. Bacteriol medicine
project management 1913


US Nevada State Jrnl business, economics
behaviourism 1913 US Psychol. Rev. psychology
superconductor 1913


Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad science
big picture 1913


US Titusville (Pa.) Herald  entertainment
comic strip 1913


US Altoona (Pa.) Mirror entertainment
streamlined 1913 Brit Aeroplane transport
not-for-profit 1913


US Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.  business, economics
talkie 1913 US Writer’s Bull.  entertainment
petrochemical 1913 US Chem. Abstr.  science
record player 1913


US Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune entertainment
seaplane 1913


Brit Hansard Commons  transport
turn-round 1913 Brit The Regent general language
stooge 1913 US Sat. Evening Post  general language
person-to-person 1913


US Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star general language
anti-freeze 1913


US Dict. Automobile Terms  transport
pre-eclampsia 1913 Brit Lancet medicine
fifty-fifty 1913 US Little Nugget general  language
once-over 1913 US N.Y. Evening Jrnl general language
lav 1913 Brit Sinister St general language
pep talk 1913


US Colorado Springs Gaz.  general language
intelligence quotient 1913 US Psychol. Bull. psychology
parsec 1913


Brit Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.  science
reflexology 1913 US Med. World  medicine
sexologist 1913 US Pract. Treat. Causes, Symptoms & Treatm. Sexual Impotence  medicine
admin 1913 US Trans. 15th Internat. Congr. Hygiene & Demography  general language
headcount 1913 US Motion-pict. Work  general language
piggy bank 1913 US Dietetic & Hygienic Gaz general language

seaplaneHansard Commons, 17 July – We have decided to call the naval hydroplane a seaplane, and the ordinary aeroplane or school machine, which we use in the Navy, simply a plane. (Churchill)

lav: Sinister St. I. vii. 99 – Tell the army to line up behind the lav. at four o’clock. (Mackenzie)

(lav is marked as “Chiefly Brit” and “colloq.” in the OED)

fifty-fiftyLittle Nugget vi. 121 – Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty in dis deal. (Wodehouse)

turn-round: The Regent x. 291 – She’s going to do the quickest turn-round that any ship ever did… She’ll leave at noon to-morrow.





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Where does the word television come from? Twentieth-century words: the first quinquennium.

A 1900 word that had to wait over 25 years to be instantiated. (Yup, that’s a word too — from 1949.)

A few days ago, I started a daily tweet with two, or occasionally three, words per year for every year of the twentieth century, starting in 1900. I tweet them with their first citation from the OED, which is the source I extracted them from/from which I extracted them [strike through according to taste].

I can hardly claim that this is a unique or novel approach, but it is fun and illuminating in several different ways. You never know what you will find until you find it, if you see what I mean. A bit like online dating — or so they tell me — but without the risk.

What I will do here is list the pairs or triplets of words selected for 1900-1904; provide more information about one of them, namely the gogglebox; and mention others that I didn’t tweet about.

(The full list of my entirely subjective selection is at the end.)

Selecting according to how often the words are used

For any given year, the OED records hundreds of “new words”. For instance, for 1900 there are 686. (That is, extracting “headwords”, rather than “lemmas” or “meanings”.)

How to choose?

They come ordered alphabetically – Hello! The OED is a dictionary — which means that the first one for 1900 is abiologic = abiological – hardly a vocable to set this word buff’s pulses racing.

I had to find a quick and dirty way of identifying potentially interesting ones. The OED rescued me: it helpfully indicates how often a word is used nowadays by means of a series of eight frequency bands, full details of which you can see here.
Sorting words for 1900 by current frequency banishes the worthy but boring abiologic and enthrones…television.

“What!” I hear you say. “TV hadn’t been invented back then.” Correct, it hadn’t. But something/someone does not necessarily have to exist just because there is a word or phrase for them (think unicorns, phlogiston, Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Philosopher’s Stone, basilisks, Aphrodite, mirages, and, probably, God, to name just a few).

Smog: first named and shamed in 1905. The Big Apple looking very mysterious and Whistlerian.

Reality imitates language

The divine Oscar paradoxed that “Life imitates art more than Art imitates life.”

It is similarly true that Reality sometimes imitates, or at least catches up with, Language, particularly the language of science and science fiction. H.G. Wells’s coined atomic bomb in 1914, decades before it became reality. Television also nicely illustrates this same phenomenon.

The first 1900 citation speculates excitedly and futuristically. It is from the June issue of The Century Magazine, an illustrated monthly US publication started in 1881 that lasted nearly half a century. The second is from The Electrician, which, no, is not yer average sparky, but an august and earnest London publication billed by Wikipedia as “the earliest and foremost electrical engineering and scientific journal”, and published for nigh on a hundred years.

Through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face.


(One day it will finally dawn on inveterate texting addicts that you can actually SPEAK face to face on a mobie)

At the afternoon sitting on Friday, M. C. Perskyi read a communication on ‘Television’, describing a number of apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium.
31 Sept. 822/2

The OED revised (3rd edn) definition for television goes as follows: “A system used for transmitting and viewing images and (typically) sound; the action of transmitting and viewing images using such a system (now rare). In later use: esp. such a system used for the organized broadcast of professionally produced shows and programmes.”

The Electrician citation presumably refers to “the action of …” mentioned in that definition.

Yes, but what about how the word was coined?

As the OED puts it, “Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: tele comb. form, vision n.”

That “combining form” tele– is probably otherwise best known from telephone, and is from Classical Greek τηλε-, meaning “far”. Television, therefore, could be interpreted as “far seeing”, (which is how German deals with it in Fernsehen). French had an influence: according to the OED, some of the earliest tele– words were created in French, and, it seems, that what Mr Perskyi had in mind in his “communication” noted above was the Gallic télévision.

“Meanwhile”, Modern Greek calques, possibly English, by repossessing the Classical τηλε- element and adding to it the word for “vision, sight”, όραση, to produce τηλeόραση [tī-le-O-ra-sī].

Why did I choose the words?

Having sorted by frequency, I then looked at the first 100 or so for each year. Thereafter, it was whim, dear lady, pure whim. Yeah, no, seriously, my criteria were:
• Does the word have some currency or resonance now? (single currency, racism)
• Did it historically? (suffragette)
• Has it some cultural heritage/baggage/clout/oomph, etc? [“Cultural” in its widest sense] (Dubliner, psychoanalysis)
• Is it so much part of everyday language that it might be difficult to conceive of its ever having been “invented”? (trivia, hormone)
• Was it a (major) discovery/invention? (radio, escalator, chemotherapy)
• Wow! Was it really coined that long ago? (re-evaluate, packaged, Ms., sportswear, eatery)
• Wow! You mean it didn’t exist before! No way! (Dubliner again)
• Did sex come into it? [I’m only human – allegedly – after all.] (voyeur, Tantric)
• Was/is it slangy?


This stands for “airport”. I’m old enough for TWA to mean something, a bit like BOAC. Both “initialisms”, technically, btw.

Come to think of it, those are post hoc justifications [NB: Latin phrases never hyphenated] , and “whim” is about right. My method is evolving as I go along, while the number of words I list per year before selecting my lucky pair (emboldened below) also varies. For what they’re worth, here are my shortlists.

A couple of words of caution. First word: these earliest citations sometimes refer to a meaning that is not the main current meaning. Second word: some of these entries have not been revised by the OED. It is therefore possible that, when they finally are, an earlier “first date” might be found.

single currency
come-hither look
Bramley apple

• noble gas
• chink (i.e. Chinese)

• suitcase
• paranoid
• audio-visual
• limousine
number two(s)
• skoda
• terrazzo

• basically
• radio
• clone
• landfill
man on the Clapham omnibus
• to neuter
• sportswear
• Pepsi-Cola
• fandom

Could this be the elusive “Man on the Clapham omnibus”. To me, he looks more like a toff from a first-class train, but never judge a book, etc. I can remember my father wearing a bowler hat to work (and some clothes, as well).

comic book
• back-track
• meaningfulness
• chiropractor
• preadolescent
• paedophile
• speedometer
• hip