Verbal Energy

Crowdsourcing 'Earl Grey'

Even the mighty Oxford English Dictionary makes use of 'volunteers' in its research, and has done so from the beginning.

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How old is oojamaflip?

Editorial minds at the Oxford English Dictionary want to know. The dictionary cites two ads from April 1969 as the first appearances in print of this useful word, but its editors want something earlier. The OED staff is minding the gaps – of lexicographical knowledge.

Oojamaflip is variation on the theme of thingamabob or whatchamacallit. Note that the stress is on the first syllable. (Thank you, Collins Dictionary.)

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

In the ads in question, oojamaflip was being used as the name of a specific product, a small folding trolley for home use. (Compare Gillette's appropriation of widget, another "doodad" variant, for its disposable scraper tool.)

The oojamaflip quest is posted on the OED's "appeals" website.

Just as law enforcement authorities post photos of criminal suspects and ask the public, "Have you seen this man?" the dictionary asks, "Have you seen this word – in print from an earlier date than we have?"

What is this, the democratization of the dictionary? Well, yes – as it was from the beginning. As the OED was first conceived, its methodology included having volunteer readers assigned particular books, from which they were to copy passages illustrating word usage onto "quotation slips."

By the time James Murray, often identified as "the" editor of the OED, took over the project, the pile of slips weighed two tons.

Whatever misgivings traditionalists may have about "user-provided content," it's worth remembering that the mighty OED was assembled with what might be considered an early form of crowdsourcing.

Another focus of the "appeals" process, along with oojamaflip, has been finding an earlier date for Earl Grey tea.

To quote "OED_Editor": "A number of modern tea purveyors date the origin of the tea to the 1830s, but when Oxford English Dictionary researchers looked into the name, the earliest example of 'Earl Grey tea' found dated from the 1920s, nearly a century after the first bergamot-scented cuppa was said to have been brewed."

The example, from J. Swift's 1929 work, "Chronicles of a Gigolo," reads, "She brought me beef tea, port wine and jellies from Robert Jackson's, and his Earl Grey tea, and tracts on animals and Christian Science."

It turned out that the tea was "Earl Grey's Mixture" before it was his "tea": A volunteer word-spotter known as "Hugo" located a 1928 ad in which Jacksons of Piccadilly claimed to have been selling the stuff since 1836.

Others spotted earlier references. A palace-insider memoir from 1892 reported that the second Earl Grey had recommended the tea to "Her Majesty." OED_Editor, however, observed, "[T]here is some reason to question the account of the 2nd Earl Grey making tea recommendations to Queen Victoria, since he was no longer active in public life by the time she became monarch...."

Meanwhile, the Foods of England research project finds that Charlton and Co., the shop first identified advertising "Earl Grey tea," in 1884, was in 1867 selling "the celebrated Grey mixture." Hmm. OED_Editor muses, "Could it be that Charlton and Co. started with a tea called 'the Grey Mixture', and only later endowed it with a peerage?"

The question is open, but the OED will be updated with the new information uncovered so far. Earl Grey will be crowdsourced.

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