The Grammarphobia Blog

Mix and mash

Q: I know what a “mash up” is – a digital recording that combines elements from different musical works – but I can’t find the term in my dictionary. What’s going on here?

A: Not all terms make it into all dictionaries, especially not all at once.

I can’t find the expression “mash up” (or “mash-up” or “mashup”) in the two references I consult most: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

But I do see an interesting draft entry for “mash-up” in the Oxford English Dictionary, with a published reference for the term going back a century and a half, well before anyone ever dreamed of making digital mash ups.

In the earliest citation, as well as a couple of recent ones, the expression meant a “mixture or fusion of disparate elements,” according to the OED. A character in an 1859 play, for instance, is said to speak “a mash up of Indian, French, and Mexican.”

The OED says the term was rarely used before the late 20th century, when it took on its musical meaning. Here’s how the dictionary defines the term now:

“A fusion of disparate musical elements. Now usually: a piece of popular music created by merging the elements of two or more existing songs using computer technology and production techniques, esp. one featuring the vocals of one song over the instrumental backing of another.”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage comes from a June, 1994, article in the Times of London: “So what is Jungle, this frantic, weirdly fragmented mash-up of eerie samples, dub bass lines, jittering snare drums, ragga chat and soul vocals and why should we care?”

The term, spelled “mashup,” has another meaning in computer technology – a Web page or application that combines data from two or more sources. Example: a real-estate site with data from MapQuest and a multiple listing service.

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