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18 Words Californians Gave The English Language

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When California sneezes, the nation catches a cold—or so the saying goes—but what about our effect on the English language at large? The Golden State has long been seen as a harbinger of sorts, a perpetual bellwether of either promise or doom, so it should come as no surprise that California culture has infiltrated the Oxford English Dictionary many times over, leaving a long trail of new words in our wake.

The Los Angeles Public Library and the Library Foundation have been preparing their own user-generated Southern California Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary as part of “Hollywood is a Verb,” a month-long, city-wide project examining the Oxford English Dictionary through a Southern California lens.

The library has already received over one hundred submissions, including "Animal Style," "Carmageddon," "surface street," and "Imagineer," according to Library Foundation Communications Director Katie Dunham. Words can be submitted online, and submissions will be open until Friday.

"Hollywood is a Verb" is the third in a series of major programs the Library Foundation has taken on where they examine a single book through a Southern California lens in events around the city. The first two featured books were Moby Dick and The Odyssey, with programming in 2013 and 2014 respectively. "We knew we were taking a risk in choosing a dictionary this year," Library Foundation President Ken Brecher told LAist. "However, the Oxford English Dictionary represents 20 volumes of storytelling about the history of the language one word at a time. And as we know, Los Angeles is a city of storytellers."

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Despite California's outsize influence on culture, "people often don't realize just how much the words we use to describe our lives in Southern California soon enter the vocabulary of people throughout the nation and world," Brecher said.

Library Foundation staff spoke with a number of linguists while preparing "Hollywood is a Verb," but it was a conversation with the University of Santa Barbara's Mary Bucholtz that helped spur the idea to create a Southern California-specific supplement to the OED, according to Dunham. "One of my colleagues asked her a question about the future direction of the English language," Dunham said, "to which she replied, 'California teenagers are the future of English.'”

But before we can name and define our newest California contributions to the English language, it might behoove us to look to the past, and California’s long history with the dictionary of record. As part of the project, the kind lexicographers at the OED created a visual timeline for the Library Foundation that shows when different locally-generated words entered the OED. To scroll through the OED’s timeline of California words, which spans four centuries and includes 150 words, is to experience a collision-edited snapshot montage of our state’s history in miniature.

The very first local entry into the OED dates back to 1762 (“Californian,” noun, a native or inhabitant of California). "Golden State" entered in 1847, three years before California officially entered the union. Many of the words, particularly in the first half of the timeline, describe either animals or plants, which makes sense given California’s agricultural history. “Angeleno” formally entered the OED in 1888, sandwiched between “Santa Ana” (as in the wind) and “Pepper Tree.”

The movie industry made its OED debut in 1912 with an entry for “Keystone” (noun, designating a film produced by Keystone Studios, esp. a comedy featuring the Keystone Kops, a group of incompetent policemen often involved in farcical situations or frenetic slapstick), followed shortly thereafter by “filmland” (noun, Hollywood, or a specific locality associated with the film industry). One of my personal favorites, “Hollywoodese,”—which means “the style of language supposed to be characteristic of Hollywood”—entered the OED in 1920, but Hollywood itself as a term didn’t make the cut until 1922, followed the next year by “Hollywoodize. Other OED-approved variations on the word include “Hollywoodesque” (1927) and “Hollywood Ending” (1929).

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"Tinseltown" and "La-La Land" both didn’t enter the OED until the 1970s, and yes, the definition of La-La Land is pejorative (A state of being out of touch with reality; a (notional) place characterized by blissful unawareness, self-absorption, fantasy, etc).

Taken as a whole, the entries reflect the looming shadow California culture casts across the globe (Academy Award, 1930; Beat Poet, 1955; Vato, 1968; Silicon Valley, 1974; Gangsta Rap, 1989), showcasing California’s place at the forefront of social and political movements (Black Panther, 1965; Reaganism, 1966) one short definition at a time.

The Library Foundation plans to publish their Southern California Supplement on their website, and they have also been in communication with the OED about submitting parts of it.