an antedating "how to"?

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Wed May 21 11:13:19 UTC 2014

Incidentally, I recently came across a fascinating factoid.  Anatoly Liberman, who is widely regarded as the etymological scholar of our time, said one of his goals in life, not yet fulfilled, was to antedate a word, any word, in the OED.  I.e., he has never found an antedating.  I understand that etymological scholarship and antedatings are different things, and few antedatings have actual etymological content, but you would think in the course of his extensive study of etymologies he would have done some actual research in actual sources and would have happened to find some evidence earlier than what the OED has for some term.  In fact, considering that there are large portions of the alphabet that haven't been touched systematically by the OED for well over a century -- these portions of the alphabet are remnants of a more primitive era of citation collecting -- I would think it would be hard to be a serious etymologist without stumbling on antedatings.

Fred Shapiro

From: Shapiro, Fred
Sent: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 7:03 AM
To: American Dialect Society
Subject: RE: an antedating "how to"?

Interesting question.  I think it's fair to say that I have found far more antedatings than anyone else ever, except perhaps people who do database searching for the OED every day, but I can't think of any easy answer.  First, one has to understand the principles of the OED, especially the fact that only documented and precisely dated citations, verified from original print sources or reliable facsimile images, count.  Second, I would say the way to maximize one's chances is to work on terms in areas of the alphabet that the OED's 3rd edition has not yet systematically covered, and to have access to and master the use of historical online databases such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers, NewspaperArchive,, GenealogyBank, British Newspapers 1600-1950, American Periodical Series, Google Books, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online, LexisNexis.

I don't think anyone has ever written up a "how-to" guide to finding antedatings, although the OED probably has internal manuals for its database searchers.

Fred Shapiro

From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Beth Young [zbyoung at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 3:48 PM
Subject: an antedating "how to"?

Has anyone written an antedating "how to" guide?

Last year, as an experiment, I offered extra credit to students who tried
to antedate a word in the OED. I knew that the task wouldn't appeal to
every student, but I figured that there might be one or two who would enjoy
the challenge. I thought that the activity would help students better
understand what's involved in this sort of research, and I wanted to give
them an opportunity to do research with potential real-world application.

The activity did not succeed, for a variety of reasons. My better students
chose not to try it. My weaker students did try it, but they tended to
provide "evidence" like an entry from another dictionary ("Merriam-Webster
says the word dates from 1915"), a quotation from the OED itself ("OED says
it means X but I think it really means Y") or a 21st century magazine
article that makes claims about how a word originated centuries earlier.

One student commented that she had picked the "easiest" words to antedate
but still had no luck; turns out that she thought the easiest words would
be the entries that the OED had just revised less than a year ago.

A good class discussion could clear up many misconceptions, but my classes
are almost always scheduled online. So . . . if I keep this activity
(haven't decided yet), I'll need to provide more basic information, such as
what counts as evidence and how one might go about antedating a word.

Do you know of an already written "how to" that I could share? Have you
tried this sort of activity with students?


Beth Young

The American Dialect Society -

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