The controversial acronym “Terf”, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as part of its June 2022 update. It is one of several new words that are related to our changing understanding of gender and sexuality, along with “multisexual”, “pangender”, “gender expression”, “gender presentation” and “enby” (derived from “NB”, meaning “non-binary”).
This grouping was not a conscious decision by the OED team, Fiona McPherson, a lexicographer at the dictionary, told the New Statesman. Rather, they are terms whose usage among English speakers has grown organically.
The OED team elected not to label “Terf” as derogatory on the grounds that it is not universally considered so. (“Gender-critical”, considered by some a more neutral term, was added to the OED earlier this year.) Instead, “typically regarded as derogatory” is included in the definition’s small print, which also notes that the coiner of “Terf” (the OED dates it to 2008 in a blog, hoydenabouttown.com) originally intended it to be a neutral description.
McPherson explained this decision: “We weighed it up, and because of the intentions of the coiner and the fact that there is a little bit more nuance behind its usage – it’s not always just a straight-out insult – we took the approach that we would explain that in a note. We felt it was a bit more nuanced than just slapping on derogatory or chiefly derogatory.”
The OED has been undergoing revision since 1993, when work on a third edition began – a mammoth undertaking that is the subject of a long read in this week’s New Statesman. The OED’s lexicographers update existing entries to include new meanings and reflect modern sensibilities, as well as adding entirely new words – in the process creating a lexical record of the way language, and culture, is changing. Their progress is published quarterly online.
New words and senses are added based on data collected from written sources – from song lyrics to newspaper reports to Twitter – that shows how common, or uncommon, they are. That the OED includes potentially problematic terms does not mean that the dictionary condones their usage; simply that they are used.
The June update also shows the continued influence of the pandemic, with “unvaxxed”, “unjabbed” and “vaxxer” (a person who gives vaccinations, and also someone who advocates for mass immunisation). Our growing awareness of the impact of meat on the planet is reflected in the addition of “soysage”, a soy-based vegetarian or vegan alternative to a meat sausage.
Also entering from the news agenda is “stealthing”, the removal of a condom during sex without a partner’s consent, which came to the lexicographer’s attention after the practice was made illegal in California in October 2021. “Sportswashing” – a government or organisation using a sporting event to project a positive public image – became more prominent in conversations about the Qatar World Cup and Beijing Winter Olympics.
The update also includes nearly 200 new and revised entries for words from east African varieties of English, primarily from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Many of the new entries are loanwords from their shared lingua franca, Swahili. “Sambaza”, for example, originally meaning “to send mobile phone credit to someone”, is now used more generally as “to share or send something”.
There are also east African innovations created from British English-origin words, such as “collabo” (“especially of musicians; to collaborate”) and “deskmate” (“a person who sits next to another at school”). Such additions are the work of World Englishes editors, whose focus is on including the representation of varieties of English spoken around the globe.
The full list of new words is available online now.
Read Pippa Bailey’s long read on the OED and the making of the English language online, and in the 14 June issue of the New Statesman.