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.”
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.
Malewitz is researching a book about the cultural history of animal diseases. 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.” He had to wonder: Is “ooperzootic” somehow related to our “oops?
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?
Malewitz’s resulting pursuit 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.
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.”