Birthday words

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The OED has a "birthday words" feature:

Do you know which words entered the English language around the same time you entered the world? Use our OED birthday word generator to find out! We’ve scoured the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find words with a first known usage for each year from 1900 to 2004. Simply select the relevant decade and click on your birth year to discover a word which entered the English language that year.

Please note that the dates given for these words refer to the current first known usage of the word. The OED team is continuously researching the histories of words (something you may be able to help with), and it’s therefore possible that we will find an earlier sense of the words during our research.

It's been available since December of last year, but I just learned about it today.

The methods finds 15 words whose first known citation is from the month of my birth, and two words currently dated to the very day. The two true birthday words are disneyfied and superbabe. The other 13 from the same month are apartheid, Biro, Chloromycetin, decartel(l)ization, drinkie, geekery, mu-meson, overprescription, pi-meson, playtest, polyhedrosis, rem, and rep.

I wondered what counted as geekery back then  — I should have known that this was the a reference to the original meaning of geek as "A performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal". So at that time, geekery was "The bizarre or grotesque acts performed by a carnival or circus geek, regarded collectively". The birthday quotation was from Newsweek:

Only the most desperate dipsomaniac would take a job as a geek, but this is all right with the carnival manager, because the worse the man looks, the less make-up he needs for his geekery.

The modern meaning of geek doesn't show up until 1984, according to the OED.

Playtest is a transitive verb meaning "To test through play the quality, safety, or marketability of". Polyhedrosis, in case you were wondering, turns out to be "A fatal disease of caterpillars characterized by the presence of polyhedral virus particles". And that's rep in the sense "roentgen equivalent physical", not the clipping of representative.

Of course, the internet giveth and the internet taketh away — a Google Books search turns up an instance of  "super babe" from 1945.

Anyhow, you can't use the OED's Birthday Words feature unless you're a subscriber — seems like a lost marketing opportunity. For X USD (or GBP or whatever) you could generate a link that would offer a nicely-formatted presentation of someone's Birthday Words.

But the returns tend to thin out in recent years:

YEAR October Words April Words
1927 19 22
1937 15 16
1947 15 9
1957 21 7
1967 6 22
1977 20 10
1987 8 10
1997 4 3
2007 0 0

Zeroing in on January and June words in the period 1990-2000:

YEAR January Words June Words
1990 11  3
1991 5  9
1992 3  13
1993 2  4
1994 5  9
1995 2  3
1996 8  4
1997 3  4
1998 2  0
1999 0  1
2000 0  1

Presumably this is not because the English language is slowing down in lexical innovation, but rather because it takes a while before a new coinage or borrowing gets its Word Induction Ceremony.  In any event, it means that an OED Birthday Words Portfolio would probably not be a good present for someone younger than 17 or so.



  1. Stan Carey said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 4:21 am

    From the film noir Nightmare Alley (1947):
    "You know what a geek is, don't you?"

    [(myl) The OED's earliest citation for the circus variety of geek (as in that clip) is 1919:

    1919   Billboard (Cincinnati) 25 Oct. 74/4 (advt.)    At Liberty—Snake charmer or geek man; would like to join show going south.

    And a more general meaning of "uncultivated person" is earlier:

    1876   F. K. Robinson Gloss. Words Whitby,   Gawk, Geek, Gowk or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.


  2. Stephen said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:13 am

    Becaue words are never removed from the OED (the complete one, not any subset such as the Shorter OED), I thought that they had a number of criteria to maker sure that a word (or meaning) had some longevity.

    Hence it is not surprising that there are few words with a first usage in recent years.

  3. Liz Ashdowne said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 6:14 am

    Subscribers and non-subscribers alike can use the OED Birthday Words feature which is on the public Oxford Dictionaries blog – you just can't click through and see the full entry or use Advanced Search to narrow it down to a month or day unless you are a subscriber.

  4. Sili said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 6:51 am

    I wouldn't have thought mu-meson and pi-meson were coined together, but I'm not all that familiar with the history of particle physics.

    A quick look at the Pfft of All Knowledge, though, suggests that the names were introduced to differentiate between mesons, so it makes sense if they came together.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    I get only one result, "bunny hop," for my birth year. Is that because I'm not a subscriber?

  6. pj said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Ralph Hickok: yes, the simple graphic tool on the 'birthday word generator' blog entry just offers one word per year (to everyone – it can't tell if you're a subscriber or not!). Then there's a link explaining how to use the (subscriber-only) full dictionary site's advanced search facility to see what entries have their first citation in a particular month – so beyond that blog graphic it's not really a special 'birthday words' feature in any meaningful way, just a clever search tip.

    (People in the UK are quite likely to find that their local authority's library service is a corporate subscriber – mine certainly is – and may be able to log in using their library card number. Rest of the world, probably not so much.)

    I'm roughly of an age with 'zhoosh', I discover:

    1977 Gay News 2–15 June 23/1 As feely homies..we would zhoosh our riahs, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar.

    and with the cricket-slang sense of 'sledging'.

  7. Avinor said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

    Mu-meson is quite obsolete, since by now we know that it actually isn't a meson at all, but a lepton, i.e., a heavier sibling of the electron. (Nowadays, we also know exactly what a meson is, namely, a bound state of two quarks.) Pi-meson has fallen out of use as well. While it certainly is a meson, these days it is usually simply called a pion.

  8. Rubrick said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

    "What's the earliest known citation for word X?" or "Which word has been around longer, X or Y?" could form the basis of a fairly interesting (and very challenging) quiz or online game (if it hasn't already). I doubt I would ever have guessed that superbabe, Disneyfied, and apartheid had approximately contemporaneous origins.

  9. Rubrick said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    Holy cow! I just went to the site and was rather astonished to find that the word "gasp" is apparently no older than I.

  10. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    @Rubrick: The word "gasp" is attested since the 14th century. I guess you were born in 1968, year of the OED's first cite for the interjection "gasp", which is "Used parenthetically to express mock horror, shock, surprise, dismay, etc."

    (If that doesn't ring a bell, then — even non-subscribers can view the quotations at

  11. exackerly said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

    @pj, zhoosh is polari, British gay slang, and like many of those words may have come originally from Romany. In which case I think it's probably a lot older than 1977.

  12. exackerly said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    Also, riah is backslang for hair.

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