Word Matters Podcast

What does the date in a dictionary entry mean?

Word Matters, Episode 45

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Finding the first time a word was ever used: seems pretty simple, right? All you have to do is read everything ever written, and then write down where you first saw it. And then hope that it wasn't used for years in speech before ever being written down (it pretty much always was). Then you get to do the same for every other word. Like we said, easy.

Today we're getting into the inexact, exacting science of finding a word's earliest use.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: a bit of time travel. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Scroll down below the definition of an entry in the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary and you will see the phrase "first known use," followed by a year or century. What precisely does it mean? And how do we determine just what follows the phrase? Today, we have Ammon Shea and the inexact, exacting art of finding the earliest uses of a word.

Ammon Shea: Mark Robinson wrote in with several questions, but one of them was such an interesting question that we really feel like it deserves a fuller examination or explication. The question he has is, when you talk about the earliest appearance of a word, is that something you search digitally, or do you have large rooms full of old dictionaries? The answer to that, of course, is both. And many other things as well. It raises this very, very interesting question, which is what does it mean when you see in a dictionary that some date is the first known use of a word? It's something that I personally feel is one of the most frequently misinterpreted bits of information in all lexicography. In that sense, I think, represents a failure on the part of dictionaries to effectively communicate the information that they are trying to provide. One of the roles that dictionaries have, not all dictionaries, but especially unabridged or most dictionaries, most modern, comprehensive dictionaries, one of the things that they try to do is, in addition to defining the word, is to provide other forms of information about it, etymology, usage labels, etc. Among those pieces of information is when the word came into use. This is a very tricky thing for lexicographers because the answer to almost all cases of when did a word start being used is, we really do not know. There are a few where we can kind of narrow it down. We associate, for instance, television with the advent of the television, a number of words relating to the railroad with railroad. However, even in cases like that, televise comes up well before televisions were invented. Telephone comes up well before telephones were invented. The word may predate the actual thing. Spaceship came up well before we had spaceships. So they're not directly tied in all cases.

We do the best with the tools that are available to us. And as time moves on and technology changes, those tools that are available also change. Let's just talk a little bit about the history of chronological dating in lexicography, because what can possibly be sexier than that? So I mean, this starts really in the 19th century with, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: It starts at the very beginning of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was a speech that Dean Trench gave to the Philological Society, which was calling for the creation of this new dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: On some deficiencies, is that what it's called?

Ammon Shea: Yeah, On some deficiencies in our English Dictionaries. This was the plan for the cry of the need for what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, and initially was the new English dictionary, based on historical principles. One of the things that Trench was saying is that in order to have this comprehensive dictionary, we need to define all the words and whenever possible, we need to establish the earliest use of when a word came in through our language. He had a very direct way of how to do that, which is that we just need to read all of the books that were ever written.

Peter Sokolowski: Easy.

Ammon Shea: Right, a very Victorian, kind of hubristic approach to this grand intellectual feat and they did a great job. The Oxford English Dictionary is among many things, this monumental, splendid attempt to chronicle the language in not just in meaning, but in date. But how do you find out when a word came into play? You just read books and when you find it, you know an early date.

Peter Sokolowski: The date of the publication of that book.

Ammon Shea: Right, and then you look in earlier works and so forth. But there are a lot of problems with this. One of the problems is that they were largely reliant on volunteer readers. Volunteer readers, unsurprisingly, liked to read books, as opposed to, say, shipping manifests. In a lot of cases, you are more apt to find early uses of words in inventories or things like that than you are in, say, Shakespeare.

Peter Sokolowski: Because so much writing was bureaucratic-

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: ... in the period before general literacy.

Ammon Shea: Right, or scientific. If you can read King Lear, or if you're going to read a scientific treatise, most people will go for King Lear. So you get an over-representation of literature. Everybody here, I believe, has worked on dating for Merriam.

Peter Sokolowski: I was a dating editor on the 11th Collegiate. That was my primary job.

Ammon Shea: For one.

Emily Brewster: I have not really. I have researched dates when I'm writing articles, but I have never worked as a dater.

Neil Serven: I have not particularly applied myself to the work of dating.

Ammon Shea: Well, it's so much different now because in the 18th, of course ... I mean, the 19th and for almost all of the 20th century, it was entirely you would read things and you would make notes of this. With the rise of digital sources and as optical character recognition and things like that have improved, there are so many different ways that you can look for specific dates. There are databases that are devoted to science, databases devoted entirely to newspapers, genealogy, or all kinds of things. If you combine the field that you're looking in, like if you are looking for early use of a scientific term, you do not go look for newspapers, you go look in scientific publications, etc. But even in the best of circumstances, what you're going to end up with is an educated guess.

Peter Sokolowski: Because when a word is first found in print or found in its earliest date in a print source, who's to say that that word wasn't around in, for example, private correspondence, or medical journals, or any number of other kinds of publishing or writing before that particular date? So the fact is, all it means is that this word was well known to this writer and this printer at this moment.

Ammon Shea: Particularly, if you see somebody using a word and they do not gloss that word, and they don't feel the need to explain it, that means everybody knows what it means, which means it's already been around for a while.

Peter Sokolowski: It could be in more spoken language than written language, which is almost certainly true in all of these early periods, right?

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. Now one of the only exceptions that we have to, this is the word serendipity, in which we have this wonderful letter that it was coined we believe by Horace Walpole, in which he wrote a letter to Horace Mann. And he talks about serendipity, this word that I just invented, and it's kind of like, this is the birth and he explains where he gets the word. And then from the three princes of Serendip and fairytale. And it's very clear that this is the moment at which serendipity was kind of born into the world.

Peter Sokolowski: There's only a handful of those. We have the word googol, meaning...

Ammon Shea: Right, but in almost all cases.

Emily Brewster: Is more than a handful, I think. You know meme was coined by Richard Dawkins and he first mentioned it in his book The Selfish Gene_, it's possible that he had used that word in a conversation with his friend or something before. We can certainly date the word, it's print use, to that book.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. There are slightly more than a handful, but considering that of the millions and millions of words and in the English language, it is a very, very small percentage. And one of the things that happens time and time again, is people, many times educated users of the dictionary will go look at either our dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and they'll see first recorded use. And they equate that with the moment of invention-

Peter Sokolowski: Or coinage.

Ammon Shea: Right, exactly.

Peter Sokolowski: So they'll say, oh, that author cited in that very first work must have coined that word.

Ammon Shea: Right? So a classic case of this is jazz age, which is attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, because in an earlier edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, jazz age, the first known citation was credited to the Fitzgerald and he did use it at an early point. I've seen a dozen or two dozen academic works talking about how Fitzgerald coined jazz age, nowhere in the Oxford English Dictionary does it say this because-

Peter Sokolowski: They're using the tool improperly.

Ammon Shea: Exactly. And so this just means that Fitzgerald represents, for that book, the earliest known use of this word at that point.

Peter Sokolowski: And what about, for example, Shakespeare. I mean, entire academic papers and even little books have been written about the words coined by Shakespeare, which I think I'm sorry to say it. It's kind of just a lazy way of using the Oxford English Dictionary by looking at those first citations.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And again, this brings us back to where do you find the first uses of words? And there's a wonderful resource online, which unfortunately is usually subscription-based, which is called State Papers Online. And it's a collection of largely Tudor-era correspondence, and just documents relating to the British royalty and diplomats and stuff like that. And it's all handwritten, so it wasn't things that were put into print, it's just letters and stuff. And it's an incredible wealth of earlier than we had previously known uses of things. And in a lot of cases, it's things that are just not at all exciting. There are things like for pieces of furniture that are listed an inventory of what's in this particular castle, that's getting moved to that castle. Nobody in their right mind would read this for fun, but if you're reading it with an eye towards, I need to find the earlier use. And it was very exciting because everything is potentially a find.

Neil Serven: Yeah it tells a story of how words are mostly born, right? They're mostly born out of some necessity and not really out of someone being this whimsical explosion or something, this dynamic word that is being coined to show off. It's often you just need a word for something because you need it and so it appears in sort of these humble sources like shipping manifests, as you said.

Peter Sokolowski: Necessity and not inspiration.

Neil Serven: Yeah. When we talk about a dictionary entry, sometimes being the whole story of a word, the beginning is all going to be this kind of quiet moment. But often, you mentioned many times, words are really coined, for lack of a better word, out of conversation before they are ever written down and documented. And so we talk now about if letters become the source, writers have to think about their audience sometimes and so they aren't going to use unfamiliar words with broad audiences all at once. They're going to try them out. They've got to try them out with each other. Writers when writing write to each other, we've mentioned before, I think I mentioned this in another episode, they often try to show off for each other, so they will want to try a different word and they'll even maybe announce that they've coined it just because they want to show off for these other writers that they're talking to. And so this is an era now, where we might not necessarily have the first use of a word really be spoken because now people do that performative writing on Twitter. And so they could coin a word on Twitter before anyone has ever spoken it and that becomes the first use. And no one's ever going to find an earlier use because that was the coinage. It didn't really happen that way before.

Ammon Shea: That is a really interesting point that we are kind of reversing.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. The primacy of the spoken word has been turned upside down by this.

Ammon Shea: There were some categories like in scientific writing, for instance, I think a lot of technical writing, the written form would come before the spoken form.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Ammon Shea: But most of the language was used in spoken form.

Peter Sokolowski: And a lot of those words are based on Latin, for which we had lots of records.

Ammon Shea: Right. Another kind of great example of imprecision of dating and dictionaries is that if you look in any historical dictionary, a lot of times you see these giant spikes. And so for instance, in the year, 1755, there used to be this huge number of words that came into the language around say 1533, a huge number of words came in to the language.

Peter Sokolowski: 1611.

Ammon Shea: 1611, right.

Speaker 4: So people were just really imaginative then.

Ammon Shea: They're great vintage for coinages. So what it actually was of course, was at 1755 was the first publication of Samuel Johnson's wonderful Dictionary of the English Language. So when a work that was full of recent coinages or new things, but maybe not the first ones, but it was a work that was really focused on by a lot of researchers. You see this disproportionate number of words that are taken note of from that specific thing.

Peter Sokolowski: Dictionary editors are looking at other dictionaries, earlier dictionaries.

Ammon Shea: Right, but these kinds of spikes are getting ground down over time as we get more and more exact in terms of dating when words came in. But, my feeling is that whenever you're looking in a dictionary and it cites another dictionary as the first known use, it kind of means we couldn't get that far with this one.

Peter Sokolowski: There is a clue if you're a careful reader, of these date indications in Merriam-Webster style, if we use the word circa, right. If we use the say, circa 1755, that means that we have evidence of this word in 1755, but that evidence is only somebody else's dictionary as opposed to its natural use.

Emily Brewster: Well, and I think it's unfair to be too hard on these lexicographers who are using these dictionaries, because Johnson's dictionary is a fine source for knowing that a word is established in the language, and finding the first print example for each word used to be such an incredibly painstaking process. So if your time is not infinite and your technology is limited, then it certainly makes sense to use that as a method of dating.

Neil Serven: And not every lexicographer wanted to share their sources. Once it was done and used as the date for someone's dictionary, they weren't then going to say, yeah I found it in this article, in this magazine, use it for your own dictionary. They're not going to do that. They're just going to have to rely on the date and just say, I trust that you've done this work accurately and that's what I'm going to use in my dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: In a sense, something like Johnson's dictionary, which was this amazing achievement in the humanities. It was an organized census of the language in 1755. So we know it's population, we know it, these certain words are accounted for, and that allows researchers to then go forward and say, well, it certainly was in use then. So we have to look earlier than 1755 to find it in its original use, right?

Ammon Shea: That is a much more reasonable way of looking at dates, as to say that if you see that we have a date of 1755, even if we took that date from Johnson, that it's pretty safe to say the word was in use at that point. The are a couple of outliers. One that comes to mind, of course, is the acronym OMG, which came up I think in 1915 in a letter from the head of the British admiralty writing to a church or somebody, and he wrote, "there's even talk of an Admiralty on the tepee O M G, oh my God." He uses it very clearly, but then it really disappears another 80 years. So if you see OMG in use from like 1915, that doesn't mean that it was actually in use throughout the thirties and forties, as much as we would like to think that's the case.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more word dating. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I am Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the definition and history of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you enjoy Word Matters, check out the Science Diction Podcast from the producers of public radio Science Friday, it's a podcast about words and the science behind them. On a recent episode, Language Evolves, Peter and I talk with Johanna Mayer about words born out of mistakes. That's Science Diction available, wherever you get your podcasts.

Peter Sokolowski: The work before digital search was incredibly difficult and detailed and we should mention our colleague, Dr. Joanne Despres, who's the head of etymological dating at Merriam-Webster and has been for years. She's a medievalist and she started at a time and I worked under her guidance for the 11th Collegiate. There wasn't a lot online at that time. And even though we're not that far away, 18 or 20 years later, we have all of these sources of digitized materials. So that from your laptop anywhere you can do incredible work. That was just impossible for us.

Ammon Shea: I'm really glad that you brought up Joanne, because one of the things that I think is so remarkable about her work as a dater, is that she came up and when she did her dissertation, her PhD was on translation techniques and the romances of William Caxton medieval printer and what she did, she went through his works and she kind of made a collocation, a collection of words that came up in his works. Using this she was able to use this as a dating tool. So rather than just say, okay, I'm looking for the word obnubilate, now I'm going to go search through 50,000 books and try to find that. She made a much more comprehensive way of searching, which was obviously pre-internet, she'd wrote this in the early nineties. It was a very, very effective tool. So you know, that if everything from Caxton is early 16th century, and if it shows up in Caxton, that means you're definitely coming from that date range and that's a very, very effective way of pushing dates back in large groups.

Peter Sokolowski: And it shows that part of doing this job well, is really intelligent searching. It's sort of knowing where the target is likely to be, and then spending your time on that target.

Emily Brewster: Now, there are some really fun antedating; antedating is when we uncover an earlier use than the use that is currently known.

Peter Sokolowski: That's ante with an E.

Emily Brewster: Ante meaning "before." And you mentioned OMG dating back as far as it does; the word frenemy, which was entered into Merriam Webster's dictionary is in, I think, 2009. So it's a pretty recent word or a recently defined word because it was really very uncommon before then. But at one time, I think when it was entered in 2009, a date of 1954 had been uncovered for the first known use of frenemy in print, but scholarship continues and the date at the entry for frenemy right now is 1891.

Peter Sokolowski: I bet a lot of people think that that is a very recent coinage.

Emily Brewster: Yes. I think it still sounds like kind of a new word to a lot of people who are not familiar with it. A frenemy of course, is one who pretends be a friend, but is actually an enemy.

Peter Sokolowski: And I think not a day goes by that I'm not surprised by the date of a word in one direction or another. Whether I thought this word was much more established than it is, or that it surprises me at how recent it is. One example, when we were looking at some of Noah Webster's work, we realized that in 1806, his first dictionary was the first time the word whiskey was ever added to an English language dictionary and I just thought, how is it possible that Samuel Johnson didn't have the word whiskey in his dictionary? Well, it turns out if you look at more modern research, whiskey only dates to the early 17 hundreds, which means when Johnson was doing his work, it was such a new word. It was probably spoken a lot, but not written a lot. He didn't have the printed evidence. It wasn't in Shakespeare for example. And so he did his due diligence, he didn't add it to his dictionary, but it had settled into the language in the following generation and that's why Webster did. And so again, these words and their dates help us locate the cultural story that's broader than just the linguistic story.

Ammon Shea: A classic case of that is the word online, which we think of as this real hallmark of the modern era and we've dated that to say 1950 in a book titled High Speed Computing Devices. Very clear, the question of whether online or offline operation is more suitable can be determined, et cetera. I think illustrative of not just the fact that words are older than we think, but also that the technological revolution that has caused our digital age is much older than we think.

Peter Sokolowski: Because the ideas were there and therefore the words were there.

Ammon Shea: Even though we didn't have an internet browser at the time, the seeds of the technological revolution were certainly sown.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something else about this, which I think as a footnote, which is the sort of business side of this. The Merriam-Webster tradition of having a dictionary entry presented in chronological order is a long one. In some ways it resembles the Oxford English Dictionary that shows the word's history in chronological order. For that reason for the whole 20th century and back to the first revision of Webster's work, the dates of first use were known to Merriam-Webster, but they were not shown in the dictionary entry. They were simply known in the office in order to orient the entry to, in order to make the first definition be the oldest one, which was our former policy and the policy of the great unabridged additions, the second edition and the third edition, for example. And there was a business meeting at one time in the late 1970s at Merriam-Webster, in which among other things, there was a cost benefit analysis and the editor in chief was presenting his staff's work to the businessman, the president of the company. And he said the president of the company. So what is this dating? I don't understand this. And the editor in chief said, well, we need to know the first known use of every word in order to orient the definitions in the correct chronological way. And the president of the company who was a salesman, someone from publishing, but not a lexicographer said, wait a minute. You mean to tell me that you expend energy and intellectual effort and finding a date, a number for every single entry in the dictionary. And we don't present it in the text of the dictionary, because at that time we didn't, and the answer was that's correct. We do it for purposes only because we can't be sure that that date really means the coinage of this term. We think it represents as best as we can. The first known use of that term and the president of the company said, I don't care. It's something that distinguishes or could distinguish our book from our competitor's books. And that's why in the Ninth Collegiate in 1983, the dates were added to Merriam-Webster's dictionaries, purely as a sales point for the sales staff who could then go to their clients and say, the Merriam-Webster dictionary will give you the data first known use. Whereas the other guys won't.

Neil Serven: They had to wonder at the time how many people would actually want to know that information. You had to probably do some kind of guessing in terms of, what does that mean, audience curiosity of data first use, and then of course being a print dictionary at the time, even though those six characters, two parentheses in the year in between them could often cause an entry to bump a line and then when you're dealing with a print dictionary, that's a pretty expensive adjustment that you're willing to make.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. So that's why it was done for a new addition, where they knew they were going to re-typeset the entire book. That's a good point. And what I like about it is that raw pragmatism of it, the guy thought this is a piece of information that someone else doesn't have. So let's use it as a selling point. The editor felt we don't want to do that because we can't be entirely sure of the research and yet I find it to be one of the most fun and compelling parts of the dictionary today, I love this.

Ammon Shea: I love it as part of the research, I think, because anything becomes exciting to read if you're reading it without an eye to plot or dialogue or character development, if you're just thinking about it purely as, is this an earlier use.

Peter Sokolowski: When you say plot, I mean, for example, think of one easy use for this as if you were writing the screenplay or a television script that is set in say 1912, you could identify all of the words in your script, according to whether or not they were in use or would have been used at that time. Yeah, anachronisms, it's a fun tool and it's an incredibly rich cultural information that I think has given and the dates. And in fact, they're presented in another way in our dictionary online, which is something that we call time traveler, so that if you were to look up a word and see its date, I happen to just look up whiskey, which was 1715, and then you can click it, it says see more words from the same year and see other words that have the same date, the date of first known use, but other words from 1715, like the word whiskey include the word physics, the word coefficient, the word antacid, and the word anecdotal. And that's kind of interesting. And there's another sort of dictionary shorthand that we should also identify, which is the technology of printing is so essential to this information that before the commonly found printed works, we actually just give the centuries. So if you see something like 15th century or earlier, it will simply say 14th century, 13th century or before 12th century. And that is the code in a Merriam-Webster dictionary for this word is as old as the English language itself, it's old English. And that gets lost in the mists of time.

Emily Brewster: I have a really good dating story. I have never worked as a dating editor. I've never been the one who finds the dates, but sometimes in the course of doing one's defining work, one ends up uncovering old examples of a word in use. So a number of years ago, I was working on the entry for hot mess. In modern use, the hot mess is something or someone that is emphatically a mess, so disorganized or someone that is unmanageable or someone or something that is unmanageable that is kind of emphatically a mess in a metaphorical way. I was defining for the Unabridged Dictionary. And so I was also looking to see if there was a yet to be defined literal use of hot mess, because when you are defining a term like hot mess that has this metaphorical use, you also need to know, oh, does this have a literal use that would now qualify for defining? And it turns out that yes, before a hot mess was a person or a thing that was very much a mess, very unmanageable disheveled, et cetera. A hot mess was a hot in temperature mess of food, a mess at that time being hot pulpy, mashy food, right. So the mess in mess hall, a hot mess was a dish of steaming lumpy food, not particularly appetizing. So I was looking at these early examples of hot mess, trying to find a good example to include in the unabridged dictionary entry. And I was in Google Books and I was just going back into the 19th century trying to say, how old is this? How long was this in use? Because also another thing that I, as a definer do is provide a summary of the evidence that I find. And so I wanted to be able to say, how old this literal use of hot mess is approximately. I was not looking for the very earliest example, but in my searching for examples of literal hot messes, I found an 1899 example of a metaphorical use of hot mess. It was in the monthly journal of the International Association of Machinists and the machinists were apparently on strike. And this writer in this journal was complaining about the lack of public support for the workers who are on strike. And he wrote, "if I say the public would only stop to consider this before forming an opinion because the wage earners might win, but no, they believe everything they see in the newspapers. If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk, that is what goes, verily I say unto you, the public is a hot mess." I can't even tell you how thrilling finding that example as it is really like one of my top lexicographical experiences was uncovering this very old use of, verily I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.

Ammon Shea: That is a spectacular example. I had one that was similar to that when I was dating the early use of a word that we probably will not typically say on air and it doesn't matter because I found in antedating at the time in an unwritten form. It was an anti-prohibition magazine called Hot Dog that was published in the early 20th century. And on the back cover, there was just a one line poem and it was maybe the person who named Athol, Massachusetts had a lisp. And at the time it was several decades before our earliest known use of that particular implication. And it's not even spelled out, the word exists nowhere on the page, but if you say it in a lisp, it suddenly shows up and that counts as lexical evidence.

Emily Brewster: That is very funny and I live not far from there and that joke is still made.

Ammon Shea: It's an old, old joke. It goes back at least to like 1921. It's a hundred years old.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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