If you've ever looked at a word and wondered, "Where did that come from?," you might understand something about Ray Malewitz's quest to dig deep into the origin of the word "oops."
But let's say that you're not someone who's particularly curious about word origins (you're missing out; they can be fascinating). Even so, chances are good that you've found yourself using a word that's only recently slipped into current usage. This recent research by Malewitz, an associate professor at Oregon State University's School of Writing, Literature and Film, also has something to say about how language is constantly changing and mutating.
And it started, as these things always do, when Malewitz was in the middle of something else.
Malewitz is researching a book about the cultural history of animal diseases. ("There hasn't been much written about these animal disease outbreaks," he said, even though they play a major role in human history and even occur, with remarkable frequency, in key works of Western culture like "The Iliad" and "Oedipus Rex.")
That research inevitably brought him into contact with the words "epizooty," which means a widespread disease affecting animals, and the adjective "epizootic," as in the Great Epizootic of 1872, the most destructive horse flu epidemic in North American history.
In additional research, Malewitz came across the word "ooperzootics," which means a fit of craziness in humans. Clearly, he thought, that had to be a variant of "epizootic."
And he had to wonder: Is "ooperzootic" somehow related to our "oops," which my dictionary defines as an interjection "used to express sudden or surprised dismay, or, sometimes, implied apology, after one has blundered, tripped, broken something, misspoken, etc."
Malewitz consulted the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, which said it wasn't clear where the term "oops" had originated. But the dictionary did note that the first known use of the word occurred in a horse racing column published in The Washington Post in 1921.
Horse racing, he thought. Horse epidemics. Is there some kind of connection here?
With that, he was off to the races, so to speak. Malewitz's resulting pursuit down this linguistic rabbit hole has resulted in a paper, "On the Origin of 'Oops': The Language and Literature of Animal Diseases," which recently was published in the journal Critical Inquiry. In the paper, he lays out the case for that connection.
He tracked down the Post column from 1921, which was filled with "weird puns," he said. And using sources like newspapers.com and a Library of Congress project called Chronicling America, Malewitz searched digitized newspaper collections for references to the word "oops" starting in 1872.
The search paid off, showing how the word "ooperzootics" had gradually been shortened to "oops" between 1872 and 1921. And it even resulted in at least one more connection back to horses: a 1909 cartoon showing a disoriented horse shouting "Whee!-Oop" after eating locoweed, the common name given to any plant that produces a toxin harmful to livestock. The cartoon's implication, Malewitz said: "When you say 'oops,' you're behaving like a sick horse."
Malewitz has plans to approach the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary to share his findings and to see if he can persuade them to update the listing for "oops."
And, in his paper for Critical Inquiry, he notes how language changes and mutates, just like the viruses he's writing about in his book about animal epidemics. There's a reason why we often say some internet meme or turn of phrase has gone "viral."
But Malewitz admitted that tracking down the origins of "oops" is somewhat more fun than writing about an epidemic like the Great Epizootic of 1872, which affected thousands of horses and crippled horse-drawn transportation in big cities. In his book, due in 2021, Malewitz plans to consider other animal epidemics as well, including white nose syndrome in bats and the chronic wasting disease that can affect deer, elk and moose populations.
"How can we get people to pay attention to these diseases?" he asked. "This is a way of doing that."
Malewitz hopes the finished book will help to illuminate some of the connections between the lives of animals and the lives of humans. As it turns out, the story of the origin of "oops" turns out to be one of those unexpected connections.
The book should offer many more of those connections — unless, of course, Malewitz gets distracted by another mystery involving word origins.
"It's a way of creatively procrastinating," he said of his linguistic detective work, "which I'm very good at." (mm)