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The antedating game

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 7, 2007 07:55 PM

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Let me second Chris Shea's praise for Seth Lobis's essay on "self-reliance," in which the BU professor uncovers the word's sinful 18th-century career. The Oxford English Dictionary has the 19th-century self-reliant -- the favorable Emersonian sense we know today -- but Lobis found the word used differently in much earlier texts, where self-reliance was denounced as a form of un-Christian pride.

Fascinating stuff -- but I have to take issue with one of Chris's characterizations. Because it has no citations of "self-reliance" before 1833, he says, "the OED seems to have gotten this one wrong."

But "wrong" is inappropriate here. No historical dictionary would claim that its first citation is the first-ever use of a word; it's only the earliest found to date. "Lexicographers are always delighted to discover evidence (called a citation) of early usage," noted a Merriam-Webster "Word for the Wise" broadcast last month:

Between the 10th and 11th editions of the Collegiate Dictionary . . . the first known print appearance of the term bona fides (meaning "evidence of one’s good faith, genuiness, achievements, or qualifications;" or simply "good faith; sincerity; the act of being genuine") shifted -- for real -- from 1798 to 1665.

And the OED's editors regularly beg the public for help in antedating words. A year ago, in fact, they took their quest on the air with a BBC TV show, "Balderdash & Piffle." The series is heading for a second season, and the new "Wordhunt" appeal list seeks earlier dates for hoodie (1990), marital aid (1976), identity theft (1991), and sick puppy (1985), among others.

Antedating gets easier by the day, as reams of text are moved to Internet archives; even amateurs can play. So go ahead, correct the OED on the dating of loo or scrunchie or one-trick pony. They'll be more than happy to hear from you.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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