Language Corner

A novelist’s enduring words

January 21, 2020

Nevil Shute is probably best known for his postapocalyptic 1957 novel On the Beach (spoiler alert: everyone dies), and his work is mostly ignored these days, but his writings are cited in the Oxford English Dictionary 547 times. (Shakespeare is quoted more than 32,000 times, so don’t get too excited.) Of those 547 Shute citations, 9 provide what the OED calls the first evidence of a word.

Some of Shute’s first usages are lost in obscurity or Australian dialect, like “chunder,” which means “to vomit” (from the 1950 novel A Town Like Alice). He is credited with two uses of “mugger,” neither the one we commonly use today for a robber. Shute used “mugger” as a slang term for a man in his 1945 novel Most Secret. He used it again in his 1951 novel Round the Bend; the same book added a usage as a verb meaning to curse or damn.

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Shute is also cited for the first published usage of “dicey,” to mean “risky, unpredictable,” as Merriam-Webster’s definition has it. It also appeared in A Town Like Alice, a novel about two former Japanese prisoners of war who reunite and settle in Australia. In the book, a pilot who is also central to the plot (no spoilers!) is flying through a misty gorge. “He edged over to the starboard side and made a tight, dicey turnaround in the gorge with about 100 feet to spare.” Even if you had never heard the word “dicey” before, the circumstances give you enough context to understand it.

The OED says “dicey” was originally Air Force slang, derived from a “die,” the spotted cube used in gambling and other games. Something that is “dicey” is akin to rolling the dice and hoping to win.

Shute also has the first published citation for the noun “putter,” the “putt-putt” sound of an internal combustion engine. Shute used it in the 1942 novel Pied Piper, about a man who rescues children from the Nazi invasion of France. (Yes, Shute wrote a lot about war and its aftermath.) “…there was a fishing-boat with a deep brown lug sail coming in from the sea; faintly they heard the putter of an engine.”

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Unlike “dicey,” though, “putter” already had many other uses, going back to the late fourteenth century, when the noun meant “An animal that pushes or butts with the head or horns.” In the fifteenth century, a “putter” was “A person who or thing which puts (in various senses); a person who raises a question, problem, etc.” (It’s unclear if that was pronounced like “put” rather than “putt.”) It’s also a person who throws the “putt” in shot-putting (1646) and the golf club used for the final, short shots (1783).

As a verb, “putter” traces to 1611, the OED says, to mean “mutter” or “grumble.” (It probably arose from a combination of “patter” and “mutter.”) It also means “to move or act aimlessly or idly.” And in 1824, it was used to mean “To make a rapid, intermittent sound, esp. that of small internal combustion engine,” though that first citation was “Like the raindrop’s puttering sound,” and not referring to an engine.

Among Shute’s other citations in the OED are the “first in sense” for the phrase “not to know one’s arse from one’s elbow” (Pastoral, 1944); “jet” as a noun for jet engine (No Highway, 1948); “mod” as a shortening of the phrase “to make modifications” (The Rainbow and the Rose, 1958); and the radio code word “Zulu” for the letter z (Trustee from the Tool Room, 1960).

But what passages from his most famous book, On the Beach, rated OED citations? Sadly, there are only nineteen, and they’re all ordinary citations, including uses of “accustomed,” “bathers” for bathing trunks, “classified,” “communicate” as an intransitive verb, and “piggy.”

That lack of original word usage in such a seminal novel could fill an admirer with “alarm and despondency.” In fact, that is one citation in the OED for On the Beach, which delivered exactly that.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.