Word of the Year 2020: Nominations and EVENT

Since 2006, I've proclaimed UK>US and US>UK Words of the Year and if I have anything to do with it, I will do so for 2020 too. You have to be careful about making plans in 2020, but at least these plans are in the internet and not in closed public spaces. I will declare my 2020 WotYs on 19 December.

I usually wait till after Christmas to do this, but this year is (if you haven't noticed!) different, and one of the differences is that Atlas Obscura  has/have  asked me to work with them in creating an online linguistic event. They're usually a company that takes people out around the world to experience things, but, as you can imagine, they've had to find other ways to connect (with) people this year.

I'm in a similar position. I was supposed to be speaking in a lot of places in 2020. It was to be my first trip to Florida and I had agreed to a whole tour of places I'd not been to in the US as well as a bunch of talks in England. I would have been selling and signing books at those events, but now I find myself with a whole lot of books stored under a bed and a travel voucher for an airline that I just pray will be flying out of the UK again after all this is over. Minor inconveniences in the big scheme of things, but still I am looking forward to this event because it will involve some INTERACTION WITH PEOPLE.

 


But before I say more about that, let's do the important business of opening nominations for the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year!  As ever, the categories are:

  • UK-to-US import
  • US-to-UK import

And as ever, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Good candidates for SbaCL WotY are expressions that have lived a good life on one side of the Atlantic but for some reason have made a splash on the other side of the Atlantic this year. 
  • Words coined this year are not really in the running. If they moved from one place to another that quickly, then it's hard to say that they're really "Americanisms" or "Britishisms". They're probably just "internetisms". The one situation in which I could see a newly minted word working as a transatlantic WotY would be if the word/expression referenced something very American/British but was nevertheless taken on in the other country.
  • When I say word of the year, I more technically mean lexical item of the year, which is to say, there can be spaces in nominations. Past space-ful WotYs have included gap year, Black Friday, and go missing

Please nominate WotYs in comments to this blog post, where it'll be easier for me to keep track of them than if they show up on different social platforms.  To see more past winners, click here.

There is a clear (orig. AmE) front-runner at the moment for the US>UK WotY (which I'm sure some of you will nominate!), but I am less certain about UK>US (and anything could change in the next couple of weeks). So please let me know your thoughts! 

And now a bit more about the Atlas Obscura event. The 19 December timing is so that we can have something of a post-mortem (<much more common in BrE) on the various English words of the year, including the dictionary ones (mostly announced now) and the American Dialect Society's (to be announced). We'll also be looking at Words of the Year from other parts of the world, within particular industries, and so forth. I'll use those words as a springboard for looking at how the experience of 2020 differed and similar-ed (<now there's a word we need) for different people and also for looking at the history and processes of Word-of-the-Yearing.

I'll do some talking and presenting, but the event will also be interactive. We'll have some (orig. AmE in this sense) quizzing and opportunity for people to put forward their own words of the year. 

So to sum up, your missions, should you choose to accept them, are:

  • Nominate transatlantic words for 2020 in the comments.
  • Book in for the Atlas Obscura event
  • Share that link to people you think should know about it. You could get a whole bunch of your friends to come and you could gang up on me and tell me all my WotYs have always been wrong.
  • And if you haven't already given The Prodigal Tongue to every anglo-/amero- -phile/-phobe and language lover you know, please consider doing so!

61 comments

  1. US->UK nomination: Furlough. I feel like it's something that comes up in America whenever there's a budget impasse (I think I first heard the word in Obamatimes) but didn't really catch on in the UK until now

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    1. This is surely the 'front-runner' to which Lynne alluded. Congrats for getting in first!

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    2. Indeed. I read a lot of American-authored science fiction and I mainly knew the word in the context of the US military before this year.

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    3. And, as luck would have it, I've just started reading a story (from 1962) which mentions furlough a couple of times in the first few pages - again in a military context.

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  2. I knew it only as an archaism for 'leave from military service'.

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  3. Round about February, my vote for US --> UK lexical item would have been '[from the] get-go' - it was prevalent until the unprecedented/challenging/strange/difficult/testing/uncertain/extraordinary times began, now it seems to have got up and gone away ...

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    1. Hmmm, another BrE speaker here, and I can't recall there ever being a time when I didn't this phrase in the ether.

      I'm also somewhat sceptical/skeptical about "furlough"; sure it's newly in frequent use, but surely it's one of those words that's always been in the dictionary to fall back on whenever the circumstances arose? It turned up in at least one of the older British novels I've read this year.

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    2. Word of the Year is about which words made a splash, rather than which words made it into the dictionary.

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    3. Definitely not primarily American, though!

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  4. Is "book in" a Britishism? I (US speaker) don't believe I've ever heard it.

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    1. At first I couldn't think of a case where I'd use this, but I think I might say, "I'm staying overnight, I'm booked in to an hotel." To book, meaning to reserve or the like is common - "I've booked tickets for the opera tonight." (If only.)

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    2. As an American I also thought that "Share that link to people ... " was odd. I'd say "Share that link with people ..."

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  5. I have to say I don't see "furlough" as an American word at all - to me, it is very much what people on Colonial service, or missionaries, or soldiers, call those holidays long enough to come back to the UK and see their families; shorter holidays would be known as "leave". So to me, not US at all.

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    1. But as Lynne, says, it's not the word itself but the extended US meaning that's the issue here. A friend of mine, for example, who works at a state university has been told that she will be required to take a number of short furloughs from her job over the coming months because of budgetary problems. I don't believe that use of the word was widespread or known at all in the UK, whereas in the US it's the most common meaning.

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    2. I checked my portable Oxford English Dictionary (which constitutes the entire first edition published early in the 20th century) and you're right, Mrs Redboots: "furlough" dates to the early 17th century and the first OED citation comes from the playwright Ben Jonson in 1605.

      But since linguists like Lynne Murphy have long observed that so many so-called Americans are actually Britishisms that fell into disuse on your side of the Atlantic, my guess is that Lynne would say this iteration of "furlough" qualifies as a word making that return trip to the UK.

      As an aside, I'd also mention that the increased use the word is getting these days in the United States -- as applied to workers who've essentially been fired/sacked but who, I suppose, technically still hold their position but are no longer on the payroll -- is tied to a meaning of the word I'm not sure I was familiar with until now.

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    3. That's not the US meaning. "Furloughed" does not mean sacked. It means you are obliged to take an enforced leave of absence, for which you will not get paid,* and during which you cannot work at all -- no phone calls or replying to emails. The assumption is that you return to work at the end of the furlough as if nothing had happened.

      *after federal government furloughs, there is usually a decision to recompense workers for lost pay, but this is not automatic and has to be decided in each case.

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    4. You're right, David, furloughing workers doesn't mean sacking them. As someone who's been sacked twice in his career, however, I confess to a jaundiced view of the inevitable long-term effect of many of these furloughs. As the pandemic drags on (and gets worse) the more likely it is that many of these furloughs will become permanent. And obviously they don't need officially to become permanent for furloughed employees to look for alternative employment ... and for their positions ultimately to be eliminated because the pandemic will inevitably shrink public and private sector revenue for years to come.

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    5. The federal government furloughs you refer to give AmE a clear claim on the word. It was a rare word at best in BrE till this year. A rare phenomenon, even. Unpaid leave / suspension for disciplinary reason, yes. Or going on hiatus voluntarily to pursue other work. But not furlough. I didn't even know how it was pronounced as I knew it only from reading literature & American media.

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  6. UK>US
    Bake Off was a US>UK WOTY, but what about a UK word or phrase from the Great British Bake Off that's going the other way?

    Perhaps

    pudding
    or
    traybake

    There are others, but english-corpora.org doesn't show many hits
    Prove the dough
    Crème Pat
    Fairy Cakes
    Fondants
    Soggy Bottom

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    1. When I first heard traybake on GBBO I couldn't figure out what it was. Then, when I saw the finished product, I thought, "Oh, bar cookies."

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  7. A very tentative suggestion for UK to US WOtY: Bonkers. It was an extremely common word in my UK youth, of course, but it was basically unheard of in the US until fairly recently. Now it's become a favorite of some journalists.

    One interesting aspect is that US writers often employ it as a plain adjective, as in 'that was a really bonkers press conference.' That doesn't sound quite right to what's left of my UK usage memory.

    I haven't done any research on this -- that is for the experts!

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    1. I think it was on my list for last year—it was used a lot in AmE media in early 2019, but went down again.

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  8. I'm American and I feel like "bonkers" has always been familiar to me. Coincidentally, I was just browsing some old posts here and found a comment from 2007: "The backwards order in US papers has always driven me (AmE) bonkers"

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    1. Fair enough. I've been in the US since the early 80s and don't recall coming across 'bonkers' until fairly recently

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    2. Wordhistories.net has an entry on bonkers: originates in British Army slang, first recorded in 1945, perhaps from "bonk on the head". Corpus of Historical American English and Google ngrams show it rising gradually in the US starting in the 1970s, found in the Saturday Evening Post (1971), Boating magazine (1974), Time magazine (1976).

      Not One-Off Britishisms covered bonkers back in 2014, concluding "at this point, it’s hard to avoid on either side of the Atlantic". I think you're right that it's more common in the news media than it was, say, 10 years ago. To me it seems more of a long-term rise than a word of 2020, but that's for Lynne to decide!

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    3. Thanks for that. I guess it's a sign of my age that I count 2014 as "fairly recent"!

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    4. In my (British) childhood, ‘bonk’ was also a word for head. So ‘bonkers’ as a word for ‘crazy’ made sense.
      But it’s a mystery that ‘bonking’ is now used as an unromantic word for sexual intercourse.

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    5. In my British childhood 'bonk' was a mildly jokey synonym for 'bump' or 'knock', but I stopped using it when I became aware of the sexual meaning (from a conversation overheard in around 1980).

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    6. The Disney animated series Bonkers was on television in 1993. It was not an unusual word, even to children, at the time. That was in fact the point in naming the character. I would be surprised if the word in AmE doesn't go much further back into the 20th century.

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  9. UK to US: Full stop. I've heard this used in news commentary lately, in sentences such as "Biden will be inaugurated as President on January 20, full stop" (meaning "case closed, pay no attention to anyone who says otherwise"). Always to add finality to a statement, never as the punctuation mark we in the US call a period.

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    1. Good one, though hard to measure since it has common uses that aren't new: come to a full stop, put a full stop to. But I just looked through recent headlines and yes, this adverbial "full stop, end of story" is having a moment.

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    2. Whoops, according to Not One-Off Britishisms, this kind of "full stop" goes back farther in AmE than I thought: he covered it first in 2011, with citations from the media going back to 2002 ("Investors haven’t lost faith in U.S. stocks. They have lost faith in stocks, full stop." Time, June 30, 2002) and then again in 2015, linking to a story on it in the Christian Science Monitor. President Obama used it sometimes. It's probably continued to get bigger, but I don't know how to judge if it's a word of 2020 in particular.

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    3. See, I would read that phrase with the same meaning as, "They have lost faith in stocks, period."

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    4. I discuss that one in The Prodigal Tongue (good book, I recommend it!) as coming to the fore in the Obama years. He loved it.

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  10. Thanks for the link on "go missing." I just became aware of it here in Texas a few years ago (and I'm a pretty old Texan), and at first it annoyed me. But the more I think about it, the more fitting it seems for the way it's used. I'm just sort of relieved that it's rise apparently hasn't been a figment of my imagination!

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  11. Is "jab" becoming more common in the USA as well as the usual "shot" ?

    Some spam ads above ?

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    1. I had to look up "jab" in a dictionary (Wiktionary) to know what meaning of "jab" could also be a "shot". I'd probably recognize it in context, but it's not a familiar usage to me (American).

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    2. Maybe one for next year. I've heard it on CNBC this week by an American based in the US.

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    3. Do you mean "jab" as a colloquial word for "vaccination"? I've never heard that in the US (and, as someone who's bit squeamish about needles, I'd be very happy for it to stay that way).

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    4. Mmm but don’t they use ‘jag’ in the USA for the same thing?

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    5. Don't know about the US, but jag was the common usage in Scotland when I was a child.

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    6. Never heard of 'jag' in that context in the US. A drinking spree, sure...

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    7. @biochemist Never heard "jag" in the US. The colloquial word for a vaccination is "shot".

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    8. OK, I must have heard it in Scotland

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    9. CNBC's Joe Kernan just said "people are getting jabbed all over the place". He often mocks British usage.

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    10. Although I don't think UK usage would be "getting jabbed". I think I would say "I'm getting a jab".

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    11. "jag" for injection is definitely Scottish.

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  12. I don't know what's going on with Blogger and comment notifications, but it hasn't been sending me these again (after sending me some last week). Apologies for the delayed responses and thank you for the nominations!

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  13. 'Woke' for US>UK. I'd never heard the word from British people until about a year ago. A very small number of right-wing papers picked up on it and now it's everywhere (almost like the people who are suddenly using it aren't the free-thinking libertarians they like to portray themselves as). This Americanism is now impossible to avoid in the UK, it's used as a lazy criticism for any vaguely left-wing or compassionate idea (e.g. attacking Marcus Rashford's school meals campaign), and it's definitely a very recent import.

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    1. That one also seems to have hit a peak in 2019. Not saying I won't consider it, but it feels a bit 'last year' to me (though it didn't win last year for other reasons).

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  14. I don't suppose a word can be eligible in more than one year? Kettling (2011 winner) had a fresh burst of appearances in US media this summer with the police protests, still treated as a new word, always with quotation marks in headlines and sidebars about "what is kettling?"

    I'm seeing "sus" (=suspicious) a lot all of a sudden. The internet tells me that the UK had "sus laws" a few decades ago, that it spread in black and internet slang in the 2000s, and that "pretty sus" had a huge spike this year because of a video game. Definitely a word of 2020, but maybe general internet rather than UK-to-US.

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  15. A vote for UK > US "reckon" as a synonym for "guess" or "suppose." "Reckon" is still more commonly found here in "to reckon with," but the other usage--formerly considered hillbilly talk--is on the increase. In just the last month I've seen "I reckon that" in the Scottsbluff (Nebraska) Star-Herald, the BattleRed blog (based in Houston, covers the Texans NFL team), and the Chicago Sun-Times. Ben Yagoda has done the statistical research: https://notoneoffbritishisms.com/2020/10/06/reckon/

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    1. Thanks for this. Looking at US uses of it in the Coronavirus corpus, a lot of them are by African-Americans. So the question would be: is this really coming from the UK, or from a dialect?

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  16. This is a bit late, but I'd back furlough for US ⟹ UK as well. The curious thing is that its new UK meaning isn't the same as what I thought it's US one was. I thought the US meaning was simply 'leave' as in the military sense, or home leave for someone who worked abroad, with no suggestion it is necessarily unpaid.

    Its new UK meaning is to be laid off temporarily, remaining an employee but either not being paid or being paid at a very much lower rate, on the basis that you can be called back in when the business re-opens or work picks up.

    Incidentally does the US have the term 'bank labour' a sort of intermediate status between being employed and just being casual? Bank labour means you are sort of on the books, available to be called in, but only paid if you actually are. Another oddity that has developed in recent years are what are called 'interns'. This may well have been a US ⟹ UK but not this year. Interns are young people, often recent graduates, who are expected to work for nothing. It's sold to them as a 'training opportunity'. It's a racket.

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    1. On "furlough," I discovered an interesting split at Merriam-Webster, the most authoritative US dictionary. The Unabridged, which isn't updated as frequently, provides the "leave" meaning first, as you'd expect: "a leave of absence granted to a governmental or institutional employee (as a soldier, civil servant, or missionary)." Definition 2b, "a temporary lack of employment due to economic conditions : layoff" gets at the meaning that feels new to you, but not quite. Only by going to the regular Merriam-Webster page do we arrive at what we're looking for: "2: a temporary leave from work that is not paid and is often for a set period of time." A lot more explicit and, it appears, recent too.

      This AmE speaker has never heard of "bank labor," which doesn't appear in either MW site. I'm becoming more familiar with UK labor law than I'd like (which isn't saying much) because of a UK-based freelancer I work with. One general lesson I've learned is that UK labor law appears to be far more prescriptive than even relatively onerous US states, such as New York or California. So I'm not sure the concept would fully translate over here.

      On interns, that indeed sounds like a possible US=>UK candidate. Internships were already booming 30 years ago, when I was in high school and college; some were structured to help satisfy coursework requirements. They were especially common in government. As a poli sci major, I participated in a DC-based program that included a mandatory internship. I got one with a US Senator who at the time was relatively obscure (he was the chairman of a subcommittee covering a content area I was studying). Research I did become part of a report that I'm sure was read by no one, but nevertheless helped me get the credit hours I needed. Since then, internships have expanded to become the free labor you describe, especially in notoriously badly paid but prestigious fields like publishing, fashion, and the nonprofit world. I recall that Goldman Sachs and other banks were embarrassed into getting rid of their programs because they can afford to pay for labor, and the programs were dominated by students whose families were wealthy enough to provide living expenses for a summer in New York.

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    2. Dru,

      We don't have the term "bank labor," but the practice you describe is common, especially but not exclusively among retail workers. I had a job in college as a stage hand for the big on-campus theatre that hosted touring musicals and concerts. I had a regular campus job elsewhere, so I would only work at the theatre if they need a huge number of bodies for a really big event. But I was an employee not a freelancer, and I remained "on the books" as an employee even if I didn't work during a pay period. And because there were no benefits, it didn't cost the business anything to keep me on the books even if I wasn't working. I also had a college/uni friend who remained on the books at the big-box store where she had worked in high school even though it was in a different city; that way she could get put back on the schedule easily when she was back with her parents over school breaks.

      In the US, the most important difference is between employees (who have more rights, including a minimum wage, and who have income taxes withheld from their pay checks) and independent contractors (who have fewer rights but more control over their hours). See, for example, https://www.integrated-payroll.com/difference-w2-employee-1099-employee/.

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    3. Sorry if this is a duplicate, but Google seems to have eaten my earlier comment when I tried to submit:

      The term "bank labor" isn't used in the US, but the concept is fairly common, especially but not exclusively in retail. Really, it works at any no-benefits job since it doesn't cost the employer anything to keep a person "on the books" without them actually working. I had a job in college that was like this. I was a stagehand for the local theatre, but since I had another regular job elsewhere on campus, the theatre only scheduled me if there was a huge show that needed lots of bodies. I had another friend who had worked at a big-box store in high school and stayed "on the books" while she was away at university. That way she could get back onto the schedule easily when she was back at her parents' during school break without having to be rehired.

      In both these cases, we were employees not freelancers/contractors. Businesses where employees get benefits are probably less likely to do this since keeping someone on the books costs money even if they aren't working. Those businesses probably use freelancers/contractors more often.

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    4. Joel, your comments are all coming through, they just have to wait for me to approve them now that we're more than two weeks from the original post.

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  17. Test if Google have fixed the problem

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  18. (They have -- finally!)

    "Similar-ed". Isn't the word you're looking for 'agreed'?

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  19. Furloughed at my place of employment means that you are not being paid but still get your medical, insurance etc. benefits. That is my understanding for most companies in this time of Covid.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)