Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - The right words for the right time: OED asks public to help trace origin of English words and phrases

What came first: the disco dress or the discotheque? This is just one in a series of linguistic questions that editors at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are asking the public to answer.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 October

The right words for the right time: OED asks public to help trace origin of English words and phrases


What came first: the disco dress or the discotheque? This is just one in a series of linguistic questions that editors at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are asking the public to answer.

The origin of the word “disco” is one such mystery the editors are trying to solve. The term became popular in the US in the summer of 1964. The Salt Lake Tribune (12 July 1964) defined the word as a “short, bare-topped dress whose main ingredient is that it must swing”. In the same year, Playboy’s September edition used the word’s more common meaning - an abbreviation of discotheque. OED’s editors are now trying to discover which meaning came first.

Another puzzler concerns the Duke of Edinburgh. A Times article of 22 April 1970 reports on Prince Philip telling a photographer: “You have been running around like a blue-arsed fly”. This is the earliest evidence the OED have of the phrase “blue-arsed fly”. However, the American phrase “blue-assed fly” has been in use from at least 1932.

John Simpson, chief editor of the OED, said that citations were traditionally gathered from the dictionary’s own century-old citation files, as well as the latest digitized databases.

However, he explained that the first recorded use of many words is still difficult to track down.

“An old takeaway menu, a family letter or album or an obscure journal might hold the key to solving one of those mysteries,” he said in the appeal.

Katherine Connor Martin, OED editor, added that while using the internet may be a new experience, the dictionary’s editors were no strangers to crowdsourcing: “The OED’s record of the history of English was relying on input from the public more than a century before the term “crowdsourcing” was even coined.”

An 1857 circular by the Philological Society of London asked people for evidence of the usage of unregistered words to create a supplement for existing dictionaries. The list was so extensive it led to a proposal for A New English Dictionary, which would later become the OED.



Questions for discussion


For primary:

  • Can you think of a new word you have learnt recently? Share it with the class.
  • Do you have a favourite word? What does it mean?

For secondary:

  • Language is constantly changing. What words do you use now which older generations might not understand?
  • The OED is using the internet to ask the public for help. How do you think the internet might be affecting the language we use?



Related resources


Researching English

  • Get students investigating the origins of English words with this web quest.

English really?

  • How much of our language is really ours? Let students discover the French influence on English language in this lesson.

English roots

  • Try this interactive quiz to test students’ knowledge of the history of the English language.

School libraries month

  • Encourage students to be passionate about language and literature with this range of resources to celebrate School libraries month.

Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week


Fears have been raised that bilingual pupils will lose out on much needed support in English after scoring highly in the new phonics test – despite historically doing poorly later in primary school.

The government’s new women’s minister has called for a reduction in the legal time limit for abortions to reflect changes in medical science.

Ikea has said it regrets deleting images of women from its catalogue in Saudi Arabia.

A Channel 4 programme about the effects of recreational drugs has been criticised for claiming to feature “ground-breaking research” on the subject.



In the news archive index