How Bootylicious Got into the Oxford English Dictionary

A question the linguistic community is asked is who “decides” on new words. For instance, the recently coined bootylicious has actually made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the meaning “sexually attractive, sexy; shapley”.

How exactly did this happen you might ask? Here’s a short account


Clearly this is a compound of the slang booty (slang orig. and chiefly among African-Americans meaning sexual intercourse and/or buttocks) and combining form -licious (yummo!) which is also found in words like babelicious and glammalicious. Being a compound was advantageous because it meant that people hearing the word for the first time can quickly figure out the meaning, but being a compound is not essential.

The word wiki (also in the OED) has no obvious English connection to any Web publishing device, but it’s still entering the English language pretty quickly at this stage. For the record, wiki is adopted from Hawaiian wikiwiki “very quickly”)

Mass Distribution

One might think bootylicious was invented for the 2001 Destiny’s Child song “Bootylicious” (as in “my body is too bootylicious for you…baby”), but one would be wrong. The OED helpfully provides some quotes which predate 2001. The song was merely exploiting a trend.

But Beyoncé did play a very important role in terms of distribution. In terms of a major “official” dictionary, the word probably won’t be included in a future volume UNLESS usage hits a critical level. There are several ways to hit critical mass. The key is often celebrity endorsement (as in bootylicious or Rachael Ray’s EEVO for “extra virgin olive oil).

Even jargon terms have to be coined and used by important authorities in your discipline. For instance, when identifying new diseases like Ebola and SARS, we rely on early reports of a newly encountered disease for which a new term is needed (interestingly diseases are often identified first as “syndromes” because the agent virus or bacteria is usually not known yet).

The other factor though is how a word is used beyond the original context. For instance, the image of Ebola as the ultimate plague spread like wildfire into not just popular science but into fiction and eventually parody (see Beach Blanket Ebola). If you lived in the U.S. through the 1990s, it’s a pretty good bet you know what Ebola means.

You Use, You Decide

So there you have it – words only become candidates for a dictionary only after it enters into communal usage. The media may make a few decisions for you, but YOU may have more influence than you realize. For instance, the term soccer Mom really sparked the public imagination, but the later counterpart NASCAR Dad wasn’t nearly so popular – even though both refer to key U.S. political demographics.

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