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Expletives Repleted

The OED talks the talk



About 20 years ago, when I worked at a small-town daily newspaper, my colleagues and I got bored on a slow night and decided to come up with a list of alternative words for "sexual intercourse."



It didn't take long to round up the usual offensive suspects. But a little ingenuity, and a lot of time on our hands, led someone -- the only woman in the room -- to suggest "scrog," which she claimed to have actually heard as a euphemism for the act of coition.


The Oxford English Dictionary hasn't quite caught up with her. That esteemed book defines "scrog" as "to cut with a hook." Close enough, I suppose, although perhaps more so for de Sade than for the rest of us.


The guardians of the OED don't add new words simply to satisfy the whims of the purveyors of slang and smut. And why should they? Such dickweeds don't read the book anyway. "Dickweed, slang, orig. and chiefly U.S. A stupid, obnoxious, or contemptible person (esp. a man)." So says the OED, which added "dickweed," along with its kin, "dickwad," to the dictionary this year.


The OED is a massive tome -- thousands of pages long in two volumes, with print so small that it comes with a magnifying glass. Good thing: One imagines mostly bespectacled old librarians thumbing through its onionskin leaves. The "shorter" edition of the book for sale is 3,984 pages and weighs 14.5 pounds. You can buy a "compact" edition with a mere 1,708 pages, or a "pocket" edition -- apparently best suited for kangaroos -- with 1,104.


The book is also available on CD-ROM or, better yet, online if you have a subscription. The online version has a "Lost for words?" option that gets you a randomly generated word -- useful in building your vocabulary, although I don't know when I'll have occasion to use "varlet," which came up when I clicked the link. The word, says the OED, is "now archaic." Zounds! Hath language no fidelity!


What's especially nice about reading the book online is that you can access its quarterly updates lickety-split. ("Lickety, adv., colloq. At full speed; headlong. Usu. prefixed to another word.") The most recent list of newly added words begins with "ab" -- as in, "Would you like to see my etchings and my washboard abs?" -- and ends with "zombify."


You may think that last word requires no explanation, but you'd be surprised: "To transform into a zombie; to make easy to control; to stupefy; to deprive of energy or vitality." As in: "The Bush administration has zombified the American people into supporting the war in Iraq and embracing his fundamentalist moral agenda." No, that sentence isn't actually in the dictionary. Not yet, anyway.


"Zombified" first appeared in The New York Times in 1950. This begs the question: How long does it take to get a word into this bloody book? Consider some of the June 2005 additions and how long they've been rolling (and roiling) off our tongues:


* Arsey. "Bad-tempered, uncooperative. Also: having an exaggerated opinion of one's own importance; arrogant, pretentious." That's the British definition. In Australia, it's meant "lucky" since 1953. No wonder the Brits and the Aussies don't get along.


* Bogart. "To force, coerce; to bully, intimidate." This word dates to 1966.


* Buttlegger. This has nothing to do with being arsey. It is, in fact, "a person who smuggles or trades illegally in cigarettes."


* Dagnab. This, of course, means "expressing annoyance or amazement." It's meant this since at least 1934, the OED's first recorded use. Welcome to the language. 'Bout time, dagnabbit!


* Dipshit. Who doesn't know what this means? Still, to put it formally: "A stupid, inept, or contemptible person; an idiot." Well said.


* Fubar. Another old one: It first appeared in Yank magazine in 1944. It now means "bungled, ruined; also, extremely intoxicated." Back then the letters stood for "fouled up beyond all recognition." The meaning of the "f" has, shall we say, evolved.


* Wussy. A delightful portmanteau: "Weak, ineffectual, effeminate. A blend of wimp and pussy."


Of course, it's not all about dissing people. (Dis, meaning to "to abuse or insult verbally," entered the book in 2002.) The OED now lists vidiot, bar and grill, beered-up, chartbuster, fabby (from "fabulous"), he-said-she-said, home run, Lib-Dem, semesterly, techno-shaman, in-box and -- a personal favorite -- ka-ching.


Finally, here's a hyphenate that's barely a decade old, but which I'm happy to blame on Maury, Jerry, Sally Jessy and all the other daytime hosts who exploit people for ridicule and profit: baby-daddy, which means, "The father of a woman's child, who is not her husband or (in most cases) her current or exclusive partner." Who said words can never hurt you?

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