Wednesday, September 12, 2007


As if the last post weren't obscure enough. Here goes.

I've found a word use that predates the OED quotations for usage by 13 years. There was a possibility that it was 23 years, but no, it's only 13 years. I just spent almost an hour tracking that piece of information down through black letter texts on EEBO. Fun times in B's office, I tell you.

I've never found one before, and I'm oddly excited in that quirky, arcana-loving way some of us have. It's not exactly the holy grail, or even a sliver of the true cross, but it's still a first for me.

Background: If that made no sense to you, here's what will help:

The OED, or Oxford English Dictionary, is a historical dictionary of English. When you look up a word, you find a basic history of usage, along with etymology (historical sources and root meanings), pronunciation, and meanings. We tend to think of words as having meanings, but really, the meanings of words are what users of the language "agree" to understand by a certain sound pattern or graphic image pattern representing a sound pattern. So you can use the OED to trace out through usage (represented by quotations) how the usage of specific words has changed over time. (Look up "let," or "silly," or "clown," to see some common words whose meanings have changed in big ways.)

Way back in the 1850s, the Philological Society (in London) started a project to track down words and such, and eventually the project grew into an attempt to create a historical dictionary of the English language. At various times, the editors sent out appeals for people to keep track of words and send them in, especially words being used in older texts and such. They tended to favor canonical and literary texts, including Shakespeare and Chaucer, but it's not like even their army of readers tracked down every text in English. And then, in 1933, they printed up what they'd found, the Oxford English Dictionary. And immediately started hearing about things they missed. So they added supplements. And in 1989, they printed the second edition.

They keep updating, now on their electronic versions, because people keep reading stuff, old and new.

I found my word because I read it in a reading for a class I'm teaching, and realizing that I wasn't absolutely certain what the word means, and knowing that someone might ask, I looked it up. And there, in pixels on the screen, were a set of quotation examples with their printing dates. And there, in a modern edition of an old book (originally printed 13 years before the first quotation example cited), was the word. Then, of course, I had to look up old editions to verify the word.

It's not a hugely important word. It's not "exsufflicate" (Shakespeare, Othello 3.3.184 [ed Sanders] TLN 1798), a word which appears only in one spot in Shakespeare (and in the words of people like me who talk about words in Shakespeare), and so has no easily understood agreed upon meaning. (We understand what it might mean by using root words and similar words in other languages.) Were I to find a quotation of "exsufflicate" that predates Othello by 13 years, I would be VERY excited.

But still, I'm sort of goofily excited.


  1. Very cool indeed.

  2. Is there some sort of procedure for notifying OED in some civilized fashion when one finds such usages?

  3. Of course this is cool! Because while we may have all of the doubts in the world about our scholarship, its relevance, etc, the history of the language and the OED are suffused with legitimacy, with gravitas--to say you contributed (even in a small way) to the OED is really not all that different than saying you took one pick-axe stroke at the Berlin Wall. Well maybe a little different. But the point is that the OED is a big deal, and you helped.