< Back to front page Text size +

The antedating game

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

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

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.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

 
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.
contributors
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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.

archives

Browse this blog

by category