Your language needs you!

Did you eat a balti before 1984 or have a mullet before 1994? And do you know how they got their names?
In conjunction with a major forthcoming BBC2 series, the OED invites you to hunt for words and help rewrite ‘the greatest book in the English language’.
250 years after Dr Johnson wrote his celebrated dictionary with the aid of just six helpers, the BBC and the Oxford English Dictionary have teamed up to appeal to the nation to help solve some of the most intriguing recent word mysteries in the language.
The OED seeks to find the earliest verifiable usage of every single word in the English language—currently 600,000 in the OED and counting—and of every separate meaning of every word. Quite a task! The fifty words on the OED’s BBC Wordhunt appeal list all have a date next to them—corresponding to the earliest evidence the dictionary currently has for that word or phrase. Can you trump that? If so the BBC wants to hear from you.

To join the word hunt, you might find an earlier appearance of the word in a book or a magazine, in a movie script, a fanzine, or even in unpublished papers or letter or a post-marked postcard. It might appear first online or in a sound recording. The most important thing is that it can be dated. Send your evidence to the BBC (email and it might feature in the big series coming to BBC2 next year.

A worthy cause; I’m presuming that “the nation” is a misprint for “all English-speaking people.” (Via Dick & Garlick.)


  1. from:
    I found this:
    The term Mullet(hair context obviously) traces back to the 1967 prison film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy, in which Kennedy’s character refers to Southern men with long hair as “Mullet Heads.”

  2. A bit off-topic, but anyway. A nutmeg is called a panna in Dutch. As far as I know, it is one of the few words from Suriname that made it into our (slang) language (the akka being a similar example). Last year, I was the trainer of a youth football team. If they had performed this trick, they would often say: ik heb je gepaneerd! Paneren is the cooking term that in English is called “to coat with bread crumbs” according to my dictionary.

  3. It’s a pity that they didn’t include the term “couch potato”. According to today’s Guardian: “British farmers have launched a campaign to remove the term “couch potato” from the dictionary because they fear its negative connotations are putting people off buying the vegetable.
    The British Potato Council has written to the Oxford English Dictionary to ask for it to be taken out.
    It has also planned demonstrations outside the offices of the Oxford University Press and in Parliament Square in London today to demand that it be replaced with the term “couch slouch”…”
    However, unfortunately for them, later on in the article: “John Simpson, the editor of the dictionary, said the phrase was first included in 1993. The first record of it was in an article in the Los Angeles Times in 1979.
    He said: “When people blame words they are actually blaming the society that uses them. Dictionaries just reflect the words that society uses. We monitor words in the language and what’s out there. Our dictionaries describe – not prescribe.”
    He said words were never taken out of the full-length dictionary, but that little-used words could be removed from the smaller dictionaries to make way for more up-to-date ones.
    “I sympathise with them. It’s not much fun being called Simpson after the birth of Bart and Homer,” he said.
    “However, couch potato will stay. We do not leave out words. Once a word is included in the big dictionary, it stays there…”,,1510150,00.html#article_continue

  4. I’ve been having fun for a few months looking for earliest uses of words in Usenet with the handy Google Groups tool, which lets you specify date ranges. So I decided to trawl for mullet after reading this article. I found some interesting stuff I think:
    Lots of use of “mullet head” which I’d never heard before, including one stating that in Florida this means “saltwater redneck” – this looks pretty close to a connection with the haircut sense since rednecks and mullet-wearers seem to me to be of the same cloth.
    “Mullet” alone used as a pejorative.
    “Stunned mullet” which I used to hear in Australia a lot. One person in Usenet refers to it as Australian but it seems to have wider usage.
    “Mullet wrapper” (or “mullet wrap”) for a cheap and/or tacky newspaper. This one amuses me greatly and seems to have pretty wide usage.
    “Mullet” in the sense of lemming/sheep/blind follower – which somebody just added to the Wiktionary article but wasn’t familiar to me.
    “Mullet glass” – any ideas?
    “Mullet smasher” – seems to be a small boat like a dinghy or runabout?
    “Mullet” as a pejorative directed towards women.
    And finally the first use of the hairstyle sense in February 1995 on a skateboarding newsgroup.

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