6 Dictionary Mysteries You Can Help Solve
By Arika Okrent
You may think the dictionary reflects the official pronouncements of some all-knowing authority from on high, but in fact, it represents how words have been used by actual people out there in the world. Getting a word or a particular meaning of a word into the dictionary depends on documented examples being found of people using it in various texts throughout history. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive, respected source on English, has a long tradition of collecting evidence from volunteer members of the public. In the old days, volunteers would copy down quotations from sources that contained examples of particular word usages and mail them in to the dictionary editors. These days anyone who wants to help can submit examples online at OED Appeals.
The OED Appeals page puts out calls for documented sources on the use of words and phrases of interest to the editors. Most of them involve newer expressions that have been dated to a certain year, but the editors believe they may be missing earlier examples that have not yet been discovered. Do you have a stack of old magazines? Do you like sifting through old newspapers and books? Maybe you can help! Here are six appeals from the OED. (If you see that others have volunteered examples in the OED comments, don't be discouraged. They may not be verifiable, and yours may be the one that ultimately is!)
1. Long Island iced tea
Legend has it that this highly alcoholic concoction was created at a Long Island nightclub in the early 1970s, but the earliest documented use of the name in print is from 1981. Can you find an earlier example?
Editors have traced this word for the short in front/long in back hairstyle to a 1994 Beastie Boys song ("Mullet Head"). Doesn't it seem older than that? Can you find an earlier "mullet"?
This "expression of disgust" is currently dated to 1978. Is that when it first made it into print? The dictionary considers many print sources. Even high school yearbooks!
This term for a combination manicure-pedicure treatment seems to have come from the Philippines, and the earliest verified example is from 1972. Do you remember seeing it before that? Does your salon have some really old magazines around?
When did people start using "email" (or e-mail) instead of "electronic mail"? The OED's first example is from 1979. Look through your company's old memos (or electronic mail messages) and see if you can find an earlier one!
6. Meanderings of Memory (source book)
This is a rather exciting mystery. A number of entries in the OED are documented with examples from an 1852 work called Meanderings of Memory, but no one has seen a copy of it. Have you? Was it the invention of a mischievous volunteer? Or is it hard to find because it was a work of pornography? (This is the theory that the Appeals comment thread is converging on.) Either way, exciting!