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Oxford Taps Crowds To Learn Words' Histories


The Oxford English Dictionary needs your help. Do you know where words like disco, baked Alaska or email come from? For years the widely regarded authority in the English language has asked the public for help tracking down the history of words and phrases. Yet as our lexicon evolves, the mission grows even tougher. A new initiative called OED Appeals hopes to solve that problem by using that same crowdsourcing approach online.

What word or phrase would you want them to investigate? Or if you've already done the legwork, what word did you track back to its origin? 800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Katherine Martin joins us from our bureau in New York. She is head of the U.S. dictionaries program at Oxford University Press. Welcome to the program, Ms. Martin.

KATHERINE MARTIN: Thanks for having me, Lynn.

NEARY: All right. Let's start out by talking about some of the phrases that you're investigating, come in from the cold, for example. What is known at this moment about that phrase?

MARTIN: Well, the first example that we have of that phrase is in the title of the John le Carre novel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." And after the publication of that novel, the word has come to be used in a wide variety of context to refer to someone coming in from some sort of metaphorical isolation. However, the implication in le Carre's book is that perhaps it was used in spy craft. We don't have any evidence of that, though, so we're hoping that someone will be able to come forward with documentation of how the word may have been used in the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage before le Carre published this book in 1963.

NEARY: That's so interesting because I always thought that he was using a commonly used phrase in the title of his book. But he may have actually made it up?

MARTIN: We don't know. He has deep roots in the British espionage community, as is well documented, so it could very well be a piece of the language of espionage. But that's a jargon that's not often written down. And that sort of thing is the challenge that we face as historical lexicographers. Some of the best stories are hidden in places where they're not easily found. It's not always the case, but you can go through The New York Times archives and there, boom, it's the first example of the word. In fact, that's hardly ever the case.

NEARY: Can you ask him?

MARTIN: Actually someone on the website suggested exactly that today. So I think we'll - I think we should do that. Sometimes we're so hived off in our world...


MARTIN: ...that it's a natural thing to do. So we're hoping that people - the problem is that even if he tells us that, we can't change our entry just because John le Carre said that it was used beforehand. We need evidence. Everything is based on evidence. So we'll ask him, send him an email and see if he can come forward with some kind of documentary evidence that we can use. But right now, the title of his book is the first documentary evidence we have. That's the real challenge.

In previous appeals that we've done in other contexts not online, we've had things like pieces of police jargon, which we managed to track back earlier through things like a policeman's notebook where it was clear. The date was authentic. We were able to authenticate the notebook, and we saw that indeed this word did go back earlier than we were able to track in other sources available to us. But it's all about documentary evidence. And regardless of what the story is that people say, unless we can see something connected on something that we can verify the data of, we can't give it as a genuine example in the Oxford English Dictionary.

NEARY: Well, tell us about this new initiative, OED Appeals. How can people help you? What is it that you want them to do?

MARTIN: Well, we will - editors, as they go through revising the dictionary, we're currently doing an unprecedented revision of the entirety of the OED, which - if you've ever seen it, it's 20 volumes in print (unintelligible).

NEARY: I have seen it.


MARTIN: Yeah. And it's getting bigger. I think - I believe it's estimated that it'll be - there will be 30 percent more or so entries in it by the time we finish. So this is a vast project. We're - some of these entries haven't been touched since 1884, when they were first published. That would be the things in A. And so we're looking at everything, re-examining it from the ground up. And, of course, we have many more resources available to us now than they did back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Internet is an incredible resource for us.

So we're finding a lot of earlier evidence of the entries we already have. But sometimes, as editors are going through a word, they just feel that there must be something better out there than they're able to see in the resources at hand. That would be our own files, online databases and corpora.

And so when that happens, they can nominate a word to be included in the OED Appeals. And then - and that means we'll post it on the Appeals website, which is, and explain what the situation is, why we think that there may be earlier evidence out there. And then we leave it open in the comments for people to come forward and provide earlier evidence that they may be able to find.

NEARY: Well, what kind of proof does a contributor have to have in order for you to accept their tip? I mean, you were just saying you can call John le Carre, but that's not going to be enough. So what has to be there to accept the information?

MARTIN: There has to be evidence that we can verify the data. So that can be something like - I've already seen since we launched the Appeals late last night, that someone has improved on our first example of Bellini, which is a cocktail made with peach juice and prosecco. Our earliest example was 1965, but we felt that it must be earlier, because we knew that it was the name of the drink, which was invented at Harry's Bar in Venice, was said to have been invented in 1948.

And already, someone has found evidence in a book from 1956. So we're looking to get - to track down a physical copy of the first edition of that book. And once we have seen that physical evidence, that yes, it was there in this document that we can tie to 1956, we'll update our entry to reflect that as soon as our publication schedule allows. But it's not always that simple. A few years ago, the OED did an appeals program - although it wasn't called that. It was called Balderdash and Piffle, in connection with the BBC.

And we issued a request for antedatings of words there. Antedating is the word that we used for an earlier example of a given word. And so one of the things that they asked to the listeners and viewers of the BBC to try to search for was an earlier example of something for the weekend, which is a coy British term for a condom.


MARTIN: So - and this is exactly the kind of thing that it is very difficult to find documentary evidence of. We've had correspondents say: I know that in my barbershop there was a sign that said something for the weekend in the 1950s. But that doesn't count, because we don't have a - we can't tie it to documentary evidence.

NEARY: You have to have a dated photograph of that sign (unintelligible). Right.


MARTIN: Yes, exactly. But the - someone remembered hearing a Monty Python record that used this term back in - I think it was 1972, and that is datable. So we were able to use that, verify the date, listen to it, get a transcript and put it in the OED archive. And now - and that then constitutes something that's a reliable date for that item. Now, we'd still love to see it go back further. And maybe we'll put up another appeal for it in a few weeks and see if someone can do better now with the power of the Internet at our fingertips.

NEARY: All right. I think we have some amateur etymologists in our audience who are on the line. Let me see if I can take a call from Paul. Paul is calling from Orange Park, Florida. You have an expression you're going to tell us about?

PAUL: Absolutely. Wonderful topic. I've been interested in etymology ever since I was a small boy, because my dad was a voracious reader and did studies on where the words came from. The expression that I have done some research on is OK. In other words, I'm OK. Or is it OK? Or OK, or OK, you know? (unintelligible).


NEARY: And what did you learned about it?

PAUL: I traced it back to the 1800s, that - where a document stated that the expression had come from the initials of a town named Old Kinderhook. And I'd have to, you know, dig through the - well, you know, now on the Internet. So that's not too difficult, but I'd have to look to see exactly, you know, what kind of document it was on. But I've always kind of wondered, you know, how that...

MARTIN: Can I - this is - as it turns out, this is one of the entries we have revised in OED and...

PAUL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...some really interesting information has been dug up recently by some etymologists on the subject of OK.

PAUL: Yeah. Wow.

MARTIN: In fact, Oxford University Press recently published a book about it. It's such an interesting story. And there have been so many different theories through the years. And that Old Kinderhook theory was a very well-known one. But in the latest theory on where old - OK comes from is that it's short for all correct, humorously misspelled. So there was a period of time in the 1800s when foppish young men, as a sort of slang amongst themselves, would spell things incorrectly. This is a little bit like what people do on the Internet today.

PAUL: Exactly like it. Exactly.

MARTIN: Very similar. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And so most of the - they had - there were lots of little coded words that they used like this, and most of them are now lost to the mists of time. But all correct, OK, it got abbreviated, and that one just stayed with us. So that's the latest thinking on that word.

PAUL: Well, thank you for sharing that. A wonderful program.

NEARY: That's great. I'm glad we were able to help you out. I'm glad we were able to help you out, Paul, with OK.

PAUL: All right. Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Thank you.

NEARY: OK. Thanks for calling.



NEARY: We could go on all afternoon with that, I think. And we are talking with Katherine Martin. She is head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And we have an email here from Greg Vernon, and it just says, big letters: Woot. W-O-O-T! And it says: An expression of elation after a victory. My experience limits its use to gamers. Do you know anything about that word?

MARTIN: Yeah. That is a word that we've sort of had on our tracking list for a while. We don't have an entry for it in OED yet. But that's an example of sort of leetspeak, which, you know, the computer in-language. The language of computing is actually really interesting for us, because much of it is documented in reliable ways. So to take an example that's currently on our appeals list, FAQ, we believe, originated in - around Usenet users. And most - much of the Usenet archive material has been indexed by Google and is available for searching.

And it's already - we've already found earlier examples since we posted that appeal bringing back the first example of FAQ, I think, to - we had 1989, and I believe we're back to 1987. But we've heard that it goes back to 1983. So we're hoping that we'll get something earlier still.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Scott in California. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT: Hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good. What phrase are you interested in?

SCOTT: It's called 23 skidoo, and it was - it means, get out of here. And from what I understand, it was based on the Flatiron Building, which was the world's first skyscraper. And the winds would blow down 23rd Street, which is one of the streets that the skyscraper's on. And the winds would blow down from the top and lift the skirts of the women, and a bunch of men would gather on the other side of the street...


SCOTT: watch the skirts go up. And so they have a special police detail to go out and get the guys to skidoo, skedaddle.


NEARY: Now, Katherine Martin, do you know anything about that?

MARTIN: Well, that's a great story, and I'm sorry to say that I have never looked into this word in particular. I'll have to - I'm not in front of my computer now, so I can't check the OED. I'll have to look when I get back to my office and see what we say on that topic, because I'm certain that some work has been done it. But I haven't done that personally.

NEARY: Well, Scott, it's a great story, nonetheless.

MARTIN: It should be true.

NEARY: I hope it is true.

SCOTT: Yeah.


SCOTT: Well, it was found in the book on skyscrapers. So it's pretty popular, a very long, narrow book, and it showed skyscrapers of the world. And that's where I found out about it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Scott.

SCOTT: Uh-huh. Bye-bye.

NEARY: OK. Bye-bye. We're going to take another call now from Doug, who's calling from Colorado. Hi, Doug. I think I've made a little bit of a mistake here with the - let me ask you, Katherine: At what point do you and your editors decide that you're done searching for a word?

MARTIN: Oh, we're never done, and that's the beauty of public - of publishing the OED online. Back when we did it in print, once it was in print, even if someone sent us great, amazing new evidence, we couldn't do anything with it until we did another edition in print. Now that we're online, we publish quarterly, and so we aim to always have the best possible information we can. And if you see - if you have earlier evidence of any word in the OED, even if it's not something that we're specifically asking for information about, we hope you'll share it with us.

And if we're able to verify it and get that documentation we need, we'll include it. We are - our editors are nominating these words for appeals, however, while we're doing the editorial process. So when we go to press each quarter with our revised entries, whatever the earliest evidence we've gotten through the appeals or through some other source at that time is what will be the evidence that's included when we first publish the entry.

NEARY: I think we have Doug on the line now. Are you there, Doug?

DOUG: Yes, I am. Thank you.

NEARY: OK. Go ahead.

DOUG: I don't have a phrase, per se, that appeals to me, but this whole subject. I recently received a book called "A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions: The Origin and Development of Pungent and Colorful Phrases that We All Use." This is by Charles Funk, and it was published in, like, 1948. I'm sure you guys know about probably millions of these things. But they're fascinating.

NEARY: Yeah. They are fascinating.

DOUG: Fascinating.

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much for telling us about that book. I really appreciate it, Doug.

DOUG: You're welcome. Thank you.

NEARY: All right.

MARTIN: The idea of a hog on ice reminds me a bit about one of my favorite expressions. Have you ever wondered why a clam is happy?


MARTIN: Because the full expression is: happy as a clam at high tide.

NEARY: I know that expression, because my mother used it all the time. One of my - you're bringing me back to my childhood. And I don't have time for you to explain to me...


NEARY: I'm going to call you up after the show, and you can explain this for me.

MARTIN: Sounds good.

NEARY: All right. Katherine, thanks so much.

MARTIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Katherine Martin is head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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