Local boy makes a word



Idea for a sitcom: The Big Lang. Theory. Premise is that a bunch of language nerds sit around and talk about their observations, obsessions, and pet peeves. Let’s say their names are Geoffrey, Lucy, Allan, and Ben, and that they’ve got some wacky neighbors, Bill, Anne, Ilan, and Rose. For the pilot episode, one of the gang, scouring the databases and corpora, thinks she has found a use of a word published prior to the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it turns out to come from a book that Google Books gave an incorrect date to. Hilarity ensues.

Wait, that’s my life. I do periodically send in citations to the OED, and sometimes they turn out to be bogus. But a couple of times, they were accepted, so my birder-style life list is up to two. As exciting as that was, imagine what it would be like to actually have created a word subsequently included in the OED and be recognized accordingly in the citations!

I actually don’t have to imagine it because I know someone who has done just that: my friend and former colleague Stephen Fried, who in his 1993 book, Thing of Beauty, coined the term fashionista, meaning, in Merriam-Webster’s definition, “a designer, promoter, or follower of the latest fashions.” Stephen’s coinage—which was a play on the Nicaraguan Sandinista political party, then much in the news—is one of the many recognized in Paul Dickson‘s entertaining recent book Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers. Some of the others are blurb (the humorist Gelett Burgess, in 1907), ninja (at least in the west, Ian Fleming, in You Only Live Twice), and meme (Richard Dawkins, famously). Thanks to the Dickson book, Stephen got a write-up in his hometown paper, in Harrisburg, Pa. Showing he’s still clever after all these years, he linked to it on Facebook with the title “Local Boy Makes Word.”

Not only has fashionista become completely accepted in the last 21 years—a Google search yields more than 11 million hits—but the fancifully applied –ista suffix has become, frankly, a cliché. At one point a couple of years ago, Target was putting out ads for “frugalistas” and Velveeta for “kitchenistas.” More recently an odd variation has popped up. It’s not yet listed in the OED but if it gets there I’d like to put forth an early use, from a 2001 edition of a men’s magazine called Savoy: “T. Edward Wilkerson, a fashionisto with flair to spare, is a former Queens kid who headed east, to the Hamptons.” It’s since become commonly accepted: fashionisto as a male fashionista. This is totally bogus: fashionista is no more feminine than Sandinista, barista, or fascista. But what are you going to do? It’s language, Jake.

Finishing up this post, I mosied over the the online OED to check the fashionista entry. What I saw there stopped me in my tracks. Here is what I found:


In other words, Stephen no longer had the first citation, or even the second. The quote from Out magazine actually came from a review of Thing of Beauty, so it certainly wasn’t a legitimate No. 2. I informed an OED editor of this via Twitter and she quickly responded, “Thanks for catching this. Now sent to the relevant editor.” Not exactly something for the life list, but satisfying.

But that 1992 citation from “R.W. Conway” was puzzling, including the quotation marks. Noted language guy Ben Zimmer responded to my tweet (and by the way, we need to get him for a guest slot on The Big Lang. Theory), “has the date of the ’92 cite been verified? There’s some uncertainty.” He provided a link to a discussion on the American Dialect Society listserv. Long story slightly less long:

In April of last year, etymologist Barry Popik took a look at fashionista and discovered through the WorldCat online catalog that a book with the odd title Vague: Violet Pea, a fashionista: a girl with her own take on fashion was held by a handful of libraries (none in the United States). The author was listed as R. William Conway, and the date of publication, 1992. Popik sent his find to OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower. Shortly after that, Garson O’Toole posted a long comment to the ADS listserv. He noted, “There is a website that appears to be controlled by Richard Conway-Jones and this seems to be the person who wrote the book containing the word. The website lists a telephone number and an email address to contact. … I do not know the currency of the contact data. Perhaps Conway-Jones can be emailed and asked about his use of the word ‘fashionista.’”

A couple of weeks later, Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, posted: “I am having the 1992 book shipped to me on interlibrary loan from Trinity College Dublin.” A week after that, Shapiro reported that the book had arrived. He observed:

The book is not dated. It says something in the back about “copyright 1992 … First published in England by ‘The Most Beautiful House in the World’ publishing, as a hand rendered novel in 1992,” but the copy I have may well have been published some years after that (the library stamp in the front is dated 2001) and I see no way to be at all confident about assigning a 1992 date to it. Stephen Fried’s 1993 usage of “fashionista” should still be considered the first use, in my opinion.

Some time after that, despite Shapiro’s opinion, the novel by Conway-Jones, or Conway, was added to the OED as the first use of fashionista.

Shapiro’s comment was the last post on the thread, suggesting that no one had contacted the author, who, his website reveals, is also a musician and painter and goes by Richard Conway-Jones. So I did. He responded in about five hours, thanking me for telling him about the OED citation, which he had not been aware of, and providing some background. (For readability, I’ve adjusted the capitalization and punctuation of his e-mail.)

Vague the novella was published in 1992, though I had published some very limited editions—hand rendered, printed on a photo copier and bound—prior to this, but only by a year or so.

I worked in a freelance capacity in the fashion industry in London, working mainly for the model agencies there. I was entirely immersed in the fashion scene of London in the early nineties. … I know I did not coin the term; it was around, like the words edgy and attitude, which were all thought to be product as much as concepts in this industry. Fashionista described a youngish person in their twenties usually who worked in fashion as a buyer for a store or a public relations girl for a designer or an actual designer.

I see no reason not to take him at his word, so it seems to me like a case of (almost) simultaneous discovery. In any case, I think it has the makings of a two-part Big Lang. Theory episode, don’t you?