Comic Strips and the OED.

Via ktschwarz at, the OED blog post Comic Strips and the OED, by Matthew Bladen:

When revising an OED entry, our chief concern is that the quotations reflect the reality of current and historical usage: we include the earliest example of a word, sense, or phrase that we can find; we strive to illustrate typicality (while occasionally including unusual material where it’s particularly relevant or helpful); and we attempt to remain objective, using corpus evidence and other tools to counteract the various blind spots and other idiosyncrasies that we each possess. However, when revising Blockhead n., there was one source that I knew I had to include. Therefore, as part of the accompanying evidence of usage for sense 1 of BLOCKHEAD (a word whose illustrious pedigree, as we now know, extends all the way back to Thomas More), you will find a quotation from a 1960 edition of the Texas newspaper Paris News, standing for all the newspapers which, on the 20th of May, printed a syndicated comic strip in which the unluckiest baseball player in history, having previously and miraculously stolen second and then third base, attempts to score his first ever run:

  Charlie Brown is trying to steal home!! Slide, Charlie Brown! Slide!..Oh, you blockhead!

I candidly admit that this quotation from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts owes its place largely to my great affection for the strip, but it is also a fine example of the word’s modern, colloquial register as a mild term of depreciation, while simultaneously being a rare example of an OED quotation taken from a comic strip which doesn’t show a decisive point in the word’s history (except arguably in terms of cultural salience), but is merely a good illustrative quotation.

Why are comic strips so rarely cited in the OED, when the newspapers in which they are widely found are cited so frequently? To a large extent, their format counts against them: the average comic strip contains only a small number of words (supplementing the illustrations which are the main attraction of the art form) to begin with, and even nowadays, when OED editors carry out much of their own research using electronic resources rather than being dependent on submissions from volunteers (valuable as the latter continue to be), these words are often less accessible than the text of the surrounding articles, due to being less readily machine-readable and hence less likely to show up in searches. As alluded to above, many of the OED’s quotations from comic strips owe their inclusion to the fact that they are crucial to the history of an entry […]

Visit the link for further examples (“It is R. F. Outcault, though, who bears away the crown”). At the Wordorigin post, I quoted the passage “sometimes even for an entire OED entry, as in the case of Frammis n., apparently first recorded in a 1940 instance of Fritzi Ritz, the strip which evolved into the better-known (and still running) Nancy” and commented:

The actual citation in the entry:

1940 Nevada State Jrnl. 31 Mar. 13 (comic strip) Oh, Mr. Frammis—don’t you think Phil is a very bright young man?.. Oh, Mr. Jetsam—I think Phil is quite smart, don’t you?..Oh, Mr. Burble—don’t you think Phil is bright?

Why the gosh darn heck do they not name the furshlugginer comic strip??

Dave Wilton responded:

I find the OED source citations maddening and utterly inadequate, especially those of newspapers. This one seems to be a one-off mistake—other comic strip artists and titles are credited. But in general, the OED does not give article titles (invaluable in identifying the placement on the page); authors (for newspapers, comic strips excepted), important in tracing what columnists/reporters are using the term; does not note when a source is from a news service (e.g., AP, UPI), helpful in figuring out if the usage is localized; does not tell you what database to find the source in (there are dozens of widely used newspaper databases); etc. 

Back in the days of print, economy of space made such shortening essential, but now there is no reason for it, especially as there is invariably a click-for-more-information link that rarely gives you any more information.

I wag an admonitory finger at the OED.

For lagniappe, Anniversaire de Tintin: cinq mots qui ont changé de sens sous la plume d’Hergé. Anacoluthe!


  1. Martin Langeveld says

    I totally agree that the OED should expand the citation metadata for newspaper (and magazine) usages to include article titles, authors, indication of local or syndicated content, etc. as Wilton lays out. I edit a Wikipedia page, and most of those things are required in citation info there. But, even with all that included, the context of the usage can also matter, and the usual brief OED snippet may not suffice to provide that. But these days it helps a lot that more and more newspaper archives are available online with great search functions. Once upon a time, if you wanted the context of a newspaper quotation, good luck: You might have to travel to a small-town library to consult bound volumes, or scroll through microfilm somewhere. The best you could do for a keyword search would be to consult the “Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.” Today, a simple search on and other sites will show you the full content item containing the snippet.

    (Speaking of the Reader’s Guide, apparently it is still around, in digital form.)

  2. Huh! I vividly remember the Reader’s Guide from my days working in libraries.

  3. Distinguish technology from legality. (Ignore cost.)

    It would be technologically possible to complete the metadata; and to expand the citation to a wide enough snippet to illustrate the sense and register; and in many cases to include a hyperlink to a digitized version of the source.

    As regards the law: in the case of pure text, a wide enough snippet would usually be slight enough to fall under fair use*. OTOH I dunno that reproducing a single-panel cartoon would; what about one of four panels? Or a lavish half-page full-color image in a graphic novel? Perhaps the ideal but law-abiding OED+ would circumvent this by including a verbal description of the image.

    * how much of “Reflections on Ice Breaking” may one quote?

  4. Searching for antecedents is harder in comic strips because the OCR, imperfect as it is, is pretty useless for hand lettering.
    There’s a vast amount of language in early comic strips. Herriman (to give one example), in his early editorial/sports cartoon days, had much obscure slang which has not made it into dictionaries. Jonathon Green, of course, is using cartoons more than most lexicographers.

  5. Surely they could issue a call for readers of old comics to send in citations of unusual words; it’s not like it would be a burden to spend one’s time reading Herriman.

  6. I heartily recommend the misleadingly-named Stripper’s Guide, a blog dedicated to obscure comic strips. A regular feature is “Herriman Saturdays”, featuring his early work. Herriman was already great then, even if his cartoons of Black folks, in particular heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, make one cringe (Herriman himself was a closeted mulatto.)

  7. Oh, I thought from your title, we would be talking about xkcd etymonline.

  8. Popular news media in Turkey often use the word maganda, approximately ‘lout, oaf, yahoo, roughneck, rowdy’, in describing persons arrested for violent or reckless behavior or for disturbing the peace with threats and insults. People arrested for road rage, for instance, are invariably called maganda in the media. These people are usually men, but one also reads of the occasional maganda kadın. The media also use the term maganda kurşunu, literally ‘maganda bullet’, for a stray bullet such as a bullet from celebratory gunfire at a wedding that ends up striking a participant or guest (wounding the bride, killing the groom…), a common occurrence.

    Everyone seems to agree that the word maganda was coined from scratch by Nuri Kurtcebe, a prominent Turkish cartoonist and graphic novelist. From the entry in Sevan Nişanyan’s online etymological dictionary:

    Gırgır dergisinde karikatürist Nuri Kurtcebe’nin 1974 dolayında ürettiği bir kelimedir. Basın dilinde popülerlik kazanması 1988’dir.

    A word created by cartoonist Nuri Kurtcebe around 1974 in the periodical Gırgır. Its popularity in journalistic use dates from 1988.

    In the ’80s, maganda was apparently originally applied to rural immigrants to cities who didn’t adapt well to urban modes of comportment.

    There is a short biography of Kurtcebe here (in English). In 2017, he was arrested and tried on the charge of insulting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in some cartoons published in 2015. Kurtcebe was given a prison sentence of 14 months but was immediately released on probation pending an appeal, last I heard.

    Gırgır (meaning ‘making fun (of somebody), laughs, a riot, joking around, flip comments’, but also ‘carpet sweeper’, and ‘dragnet’) was a long-running satirical weekly in Turkey that was closed by its publisher in 2017 after the publication of a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Moses. Gırgır was one of a group of popular satirical weeklies sold in every Turkish newstand and supermarket. LeMan is the resurrection of an earlier weekly Limon ‘Lemon’ (closed by its publisher for political reasons) and still continues today. But the consistently brilliant and hilarious Penguen (‘Penguin’) was also closed in 2017 by its editorial staff for economic and political reasons. The wonderful Uykusuz (‘Sleepless’) marches on, despite economic adversity and political peril.

    One day I want to take the time to track down the exact cartoon panel in Gırgır in which maganda first appears. Maybe I will have to write to Kurtcebe to accomplish this.

    I would like to tell LH readers to do a Google image search for maganda so that they can see many choice images of Turkish magandalar, such as a guy reclining in the seat of a sportscar while steering with his feet and enjoying a large fruit plate on the seat next to him. However, in Tagalog, maganda means ‘beautiful’ (with a lovely etymology: denominal adjective prefix ma- plus ganda, ‘beauty, excellence’, from Sanskrit gandhaḥ ‘fragrance’), so readers will see the exact opposite of a Turkish maganda.

  9. Great comment, fascinating information! As you say, an image search is swamped by Tagalog results, but searching on magandalar does the trick.

  10. In 2006 Victoria Coren on BBC2, in conjunction with the OED, asked the general public for early citations of various words and phrases in common use such as “randy”, the take-away dish “Balti” and “trainers”. Thousands of replies were received, showing such evidence of these words and phrases in places as diverse as eg old school books, menu cards and comic strips, and many of these citations are now actual entries in the OED. I know, because one I sent in was accepted and I had my moment of fame. I’m surprised that standards have been allowed to slip, if that’s what has happened.

  11. Yes, it is. They were then quite happy to include all sorts of things as evidence.

  12. For first citations the OED will accept any ephemera or unpublished source. One I remember from Balderdash and Piffle was twoc cited in a police officer’s notebook from the early 70s, which the officer had kept (against regulations). I don’t know if he had to physically donate it to the OED archive or if they sent someone round to inspect it and take photos.

    Perhaps the ideal but law-abiding OED+ would circumvent this by including a verbal description of the image.

    …I note Wiktionary seems to allow this, e.g. the 2019 cite for clussy.

  13. @mollymooly: I wish I hadn’t been made aware of this word. Oh well. What’s done is done. 2022 Word of the Year and All That.

  14. When I was searching ProQuest for various citations, I was a little surprised how some of the hits were in fact from comic strips. And yet, why not? Whether the cartoonists did it themselves or had specialists in lettering to assist, there was often a desire to have lettered text that was legible on newspaper, just like the actual typeset text. The OCR software doesn’t care…

  15. Professional comic artists who do some or all of their work digitally often have custom fonts that are created out of their hand lettering. To keep it from looking too uniform, there could be multiple letter forms for each character, and which one was used in each particular location was determined randomly.

  16. To answer your question, mollymooly, I gave the OED researchers my original evidence, (now quoted in the dictionary), which they photocopied and duly returned to me. Recently I phoned the OED to ask if I could physically bring in the original document for their archives but I was met with such a very disappointing, confused and unenthusiastic response, I still have it at home. For a start, nobody seemed able to tell me who to give it to. I just hope standards haven’t slipped there since 2006.

  17. I’m not surprised. I used to write the OED and get a prompt response from an actual person; that hasn’t been the case for years. I guess they’ve gone the way of all modern companies that set up impenetrable barriers between themselves and the annoying public.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I would not say it is “impenetrable barriers”, although I agree that this is what the user sees. What the provider might see is a “ticket” system for which individual “tickets” are the responsibility of an entire team or department, who may or may not have a working system for ensuring timely and effective actioning of “tickets”. Complaints from the user may result in the creation of new “tickets”, and the whole system is only looked at as a result of external legal action or internal audit (usually motivated by political and not business concerns, analogous to corruption trials in certain countries).

  19. @Paddy: I have made different experiences with different company systems, both as external and internal client, and with some of them I definitely had the impression that clients giving up in frustration was seen as a feature, not a bug.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    I definitely had the impression that clients giving up in frustration was seen as a feature, not a bug.

    So long as the net effect is negligible, the company can get away with it. These days you have to start a shitstorm to get a little rain.

  21. If it wanted to, the staff of the OED could easily draft an acknowledgment of receipt that could be sent to all contributors of material.

  22. I suspect that over the last decade plus, the OED has been focusing a lot of their efforts on finding cites from older sources that have recently become much easier to access, because they are now online. However, the quality of such sources is variable at all levels. See here for an example where they retrieved a word from an online archive with incorrect metadata.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I guess they’ve gone the way of all modern companies that set up impenetrable barriers between themselves and the annoying public.

    To me it looks like they downsized… they let people go and never noticed they needed them, like most modern companies.

  24. Comes to the same thing, oder?

  25. David Marjanović says

    The effect is the same, the motivation is different (trolling vs. greed).

  26. Yes, of course it’s greed; if frustrating customers would make businesses lose money knowingly, most of them wouldn’t do it. But their calculation is that the savings from not addressing problems, downsizing, automating, outsourcing etc., are bigger than the loss due to customers taking their business elsewhere.
    And in many cases, they’re right – despite e.g. all those customer service horror stories about airlines, the masses are still flying, and hunting for the cheapest tickets.

  27. Yes, that’s the sad thing — how willing we are to settle for being treated wretchedly.

  28. It’s very disheartening that for the sake of expediency, they put the digitized version before the original document. Imagine if they were offered an original Shakespeare but preferred to keep it as a copy! I’m no Shakespeare, but accepted evidence of one original citation is as valid as evidence of another.

  29. John Cowan says

    In this case, the OED’s delightful answerer-of-public-requests retired and was replaced by a multinational committee (“if you are in the Americas, write to, if you are in Europe, …”). I believe you actually wrote this up, Hat.

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