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Everything I Needed to Know about Modern Love I Learned from the Oxford English Dictionary Quarterly Updates

I’m a word nerd. My husband bought me a 20-volume unabridged Oxford English Dictionary as a Valentine’s Day present one year.

It was the first Valentine’s gift that I took seriously. Chocolates leave my stony, unromantic heart cold, but the famed “last word on words” dictionary—now this was devotion.

The unabridged OED is so majestically, and irregularly, sized that it requires its own special bookcase. I won’t lie: there have been times in my life when thatbookcase was used mostly as a makeshift coat rack or diaper bag stand. But I always got back to the words, eventually.

I look forward to the OED’s quarterly updates of newly-added words. Getting in to the OED is like being A-listed at the most exclusive Oscar night party in Hollywood.  A stern bouncer, the OED won’t admit fly-by-night sensations. Says an editor, “If we really thought a word would vanish, we’d hold off on including it for a while.”

Its combination of hipness and discernment makes the quarterly update a great tool to understand changes in relationships. It’s not just words. The new words convey the very cutting edge of our culture, things that are both novel and common enough to have inspired a new term or a new “sense,” in dictionary-speak, for an old one.

I reviewed the OED quarterly updates from 2003 to 2011 for words about relationships (this was not a scientifically-rigorous project, just an informal read).

New relationship terms can be grouped into a rough taxonomy of like-minded words:


The big innovation with these words is context. You’re doing a familiar thing like seeking romance, but in a world that’s notably different, and distinct, from the old one.

A lot of the newly-included words in this class describe the migration of desire into the ether, the cloud and the inbox:  2010 introduced cyber-romance, cyberfeminism, cyber affair, cyber stalker, and cyber babe. In 2011, cyberbullying made the grade, as did sexting.

I wonder sometimes if the august OED editors (naturally, I imagine them as august) sigh in stoic resignation as they realize that words like sexting are here to stay.

Hilariously, two in this class of words—video dating (2004), and phone sex (2006)—were technologically musty even before they earned an OED entry.


Relationships are so often murkier in reality than our available linguistic repertoire. Words in this category name newfangled relationship forms.

You’re not a girlfriend, but you’re a girl who’s a friend: you’re a gal pal (2008). You’re not a spouse, but we live together, and we’re spouse-ishly committed, so you’re a domestic partner or a life partner (2007). You’re a separated co-parent, or never-married parents, so you’re each other’s baby-daddyorbaby-mommy (2006); if you’re the biological but not the adoptive parent, you’re the birth-mother or birth-father.

Some of these subjects have always existed, but have become such “people of interest,” culturally, that they spawn a term. Sexually-alluring mothers are MILFs (2008); the affair-like relationship that isn’t technically an affair is an affair of the heart(2009).  If you’re single, you can claim citizenship in singledom (2011).

We’ve always had sexy moms, fleshless affairs, and singles, so why are they suddenly being talked about so much that they generate new words? A fascinating question…

Other words create one polite omnibus term for many different relationships. Plus-One (2008) means an invitation that includes you and one person of unknown, undesignated significance. The host won’t offend you by not explicitly mentioning your particular partner type.

WAG, which covers “wives and girlfriends” in one tidy term, is an OED rags-to-riches story. The OED editor says it’s a “real rocket of a word, to go from being coined in 2002 to being included in 2011.” WAG was commonly used during the 2006 World Cup, when the media was focused on English soccer players, who use the term widely.


Soccer mom. Helicopter parent. Crack whore. Domestic goddess. These are new sub-species of familiar relationships.


These words describe eruptions in the fuzzy boundaries of masculinity and femininity. Many describe chimeras of male and female. Mankini is a bikini designed for a man (2008). Bridezillas (2009) are half-brides, half-monsters; drag kings are women who perform male roles (2007). Womyn (2006) and grrrls are strong, not “girly-girl” types. Platonic romances shifted from male-female to the chaste, male-on-male bromance crush (2010) and, we’ve got gaydars to tell the difference.

Interestingly, some of these new words take what was a noun—girl, balls, or boy, for example—and convert it into an adjective: “girly man,” “boysy,” or “ballsiness” (2008).  I guess that’s how gender stereotypes begin to change and, eventually, decay. We start with an idea that gender comes from biology—having balls, or being a girl—but then we distill that gendered quality into an equal-opportunity, free-floating adjective. Girl becomes “girly,” and adjective that could describe men or women. Balls becomes “ballsy,” a quality that either a male or female could exhibit; boy becomes boysy, which either sex might be. We’re still linking traits to gender, which isn’t ideal, but we’re not tying those traits to biological sex, which seems like modest progress.


When two words are heard together often enough they’re promoted from being popular phrases to official OED “compounds.” These compounds indicate our cultural preoccupations.

No compounds were recorded for “abuse” in the first and second editions of the OED, but they’ve proliferated yeastily, as our discussion of abuse gets more fine-grained and sub-categorized. 

In 2008 alone, the OED added 32 compounds for “sex” that refine it into ever more precise meanings—sex scandal, sex slavery, sex guru, sex man, sex festival, sex addict, sex ring, andsex scene, etc.

Gay and queer have also acquired several new compounds. In 2006 we got gay-friendly and closet case (2006). Before the gay rights movement, most every case was a closet case, and no place was gay-friendly, so the inclusion of “closet case” along with “gay-friendly” implies that what was once the rule (the closet) is now a namable exception, which is nice to see.

If these compounds suggest to you that our culture is more sexualized, you’re probably correct: The word sexualized scored entry in 2008 as well.


Words in this class have prevailed through repetition as the heartiest clichés of modern relationships, such that they must command the OED’s attention. 

It’s interesting to observe the lag time between the cultural emergence of the word and its OED inclusion. This could be used to measure a concept’s osmosis rate–how quickly it became culturally ubiquitous.

Safe sex was in use even in the 1980s, but made it into the OED in 2005, whereas work-life balance and biological clock were included in 2006, but they were in circulation, as I recall, in the late 1990s, for a shorter lag time.

Speed dating enjoyed an extremely swift ascent. It started as a practice only in 2000, but was included three years later. So speed dating ingratiated itself into the English language faster than safe sex. Oh dear.


These are vanguard words that convey a novel idea in its formative stage—it’s the word equivalent of the Hubble watching a star get born. Polyamory (2006), for example, means a belief that we can have more than one intimate, romantic attachment, without disrespecting any party involved.  It’s reflective of America’s sexual “split personality,” at least, that an opposite new thing—an abstinence program—was included in 2011.

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These words are derived from what I call the neo-hieroglyphs of the Twitter and texting age, the icons and quasi-hieroglyphic acronyms such as LOL and OMG.

The neo-hieroglyph of just made it into the OED, in the sense of heart as a verb, as in:  I   you, OED.


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