Joanne M. Despres jdespres at MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM
Tue Sep 23 13:29:13 UTC 2003

On 22 Sep 2003, at 23:37, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:

>  think the "stupid person" sense -- or rather the sense as a term of abuse
> toward a person -- must be the basic sense despite the time order of the
> above attestations. Compare "bitch", "bastard", "bugger", "cocksucker",
> "motherf*cker", "son of a bitch", etc. -- several of these in HDAS for
> example -- in (virtually) the same inanimate application meaning "something
> annoying/accursed/difficult".

Yes, the vagaries of documentary survival do sometimes result in a
primary sense's  being attested later than a secondary one.  It's a
tricky problem for editors of an abridged dictionary trying to
represent the historical facts in an accurate and succinct way.  If
you're the OED, you can lay out the documentary evidence but
place it in "logical" order to indicate that an earlier-attested word
probably descended from a later-attested one for which earlier
occurrences have simply not been found.  In an abridged dictionary
like the 11th Collegiate, though, you can't give the earlier date and
associate it with the later-attested sense without misrepresenting
the facts.  We, at any rate, have chosen to place the highest
premium on factual accuracy, and hope that any users  who might
find that occasionally confusing or illogical read  the front matter
explaining what our policy is.

Joanne M. Despres, Senior Editor
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
jdespres at merriam-webster.com

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