The OED Needs Your Help With These Words: Bellini, Disco, FAQ, Cootie

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If you look up august in the Oxford English Dictionary, there's a picture of the Oxford English Dictionary itself. This is the world's gold standard for word origins and usage. So, you might think that you don't have much to contribute their corpus of knowledge, or that they'd ever need your help. 


But you'd be wrong. 

Today, the OED launched a new site they call "Appeals," which seeks crowdsourced evidence of early references to today's words. For example, 'disco,' is a hard one to pin down. 

Was a disco a dress before it was a nightclub? That's the surprising implication of the evidence OED researchers have uncovered while revising the entry for disco n. The earliest quotations our editors have found for the word, which is shortened from discotheque, mean 'a type of short sleeveless dress' (such as one might wear to a discotheque) and date from July 1964... 

It isn't until the September 1964 issue of Playboy that we see disco meaning 'a nightclub' (though references to disco dancing are found as early as August)

What the OED editors hope ou'll do is pull out your early 60s magazines (you have some, right?) and go looking for references to disco that precede the July 1964 references to the short sleeveless dress. 

There is some interesting context to consider here. The editors are trying to bridge the gap between the time when subcultural printed media exploded in the post-war west and when all that printed media was regularly digitized. It's those materials, the stuff produced by cheap means or only circulated in certain regions or among certain groups, that are hardest for researchers to get their hands on. But they are also the prized possessions of certain types of collectors and weirdos (among whom I would include myself on certain topics). 

So what I particularly love about the OED's Appeals is that it is an exceptionally well-designed ask for participation. They want specific information from specific subsets of people who are extremely interested in these topics. This may be filed under crowdsourcing, but they are surgical asks, not carpet bombing. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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