Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Nov 21 10:03:03 UTC 2013

A bit of a run-on, but hopefully clear enough...

There appears to be some inconsistency in the OED treatment of different
varieties of "firsts". In particular, I wanted to look at "first-rate",
"first class", "first quality" and "first order". I'll start with the last.

Here's the entry.

>  4. a. Foremost, preceding all others, in dignity, rank, importance,
> or excellence. Also in phr. of the first order  [French du premier
> ordre] ; (to put or do) first things first : (to give) first place to
> the most important things.

First 1., 2., and 3. deal mostly with ordinals and directly related
expressions. The last of these is 3.b., the aforementioned "head/feet

> 3. b. In adv. phrases (where foremost may be substituted), head first,
> feet first, etc., i.e. with the head, feet, etc., foremost.
> 1877   C. H. Spurgeon Serm. XXIII. 46   We used to dip our toes in the
> waves instead of taking a plunge head first.

Certainly, that date cannot stand, as the expression had been in use
long prior. I'm not quite sure that "foremost" is still used in the same
manner, but I would expect this to mean something like "leading with
head/feet, respectively", the exception, as it were, being the
metaphorical "carry/go out feet first" as discussed separately. But I

So the first 4.a. is the first entry that does not deal specifically
with the ordinal meaning of first--at least, not directly. Here,
"foremost" does seem appropriate. Other descriptors I might use would be
top, highest, commanding (in dignity, rank, importance or excellence, as
the entry suggests). These are particularly obvious when applied to 4.b.:

>  4. b. In official titles, etc., indicating that the person designated
> has precedence over colleagues, as first minister (more commonly
> 'prime minister'); First Lord of the Admiralty, of the Treasury; also
> ellipt.; first lieutenant, etc.

Examples include Minister, Lord, Lieutenant, lieutenancy, tenor, mate
(on a ship). In addition, one might find first deputy, first
violin/viola, etc., in an orchestra, or first chair (position, not
seat). Not sure if "private first class" qualifies for this, but it
hardly matters (see below).

In 4.a., the examples mention, in order, "first among thou", part of
medicine, "Apostles were first", quality, military employments, "of the
first order", taste, necessity, people in Boston, medical men, "first
things first", "of the first order", then more of the last two. It seems
that the last two should be singled out as idiomatic, while the rest may
be left together, more or less. In all the remaining cases, "top",
"highest" or "leading" would be reasonable substitutes for "first"
("leading", in this case, meaning something a bit different than
mentioned earlier, in connection with 3.b.).

The cross-over phrase seems to be "the first order of business", which
signifies both a temporally leading item on the agenda (ordinal), and
the most important one (rank or priority). I want to ask, is this really
the same meaning as that related by collocations "first-rate" and "first
quality"? It seems not.

Describing something as "first-rate" implies highest quality or primary
importance. "First class" can mean the same thing (e.g., first class
service, or, traveling first class, which both originate from groupings
of passengers by social status). Ironically, "first class" can also mean
the opposite, the lowest/entry level:

> [first class] 1. b. In U.S. sometimes used of the lowest or least
> important grade: as, a first-class clerk (=one who receives the lowest
> salary).

Both "first-rate" and "first class" have separate entries". In contrast,
"first quality" does not, but it actually limited to the first 4.a.
subentry mentioned earlier. But that seems to be a sin of omission.

Looking at AHN, there is a series of newspaper ads in the early 1800s
that list "Mahogany, first quality". I'm trying to figure out if this is
a rank ordering of quality, as suggested by the 4.a. lemma, or if there
is already a developed secondary meaning that implies "unblemished",
whereas "second quality", "seconds" are not merely "second rate", but
are unsuitable where unblemished items are required. Initially, of
course, they all started out the same (rank ordering), but, eventually,
"first quality/second quality" dichotomy as come to identify perfect and
imperfect goods, not merely better and lower-quality ones.

Note, in particular, that second 2.a. and 2.c., directly parallel first
4.a. and 4.b.

> 2. a. Next in rank, quality, importance, or degree of any attribute,
> to (a person or thing regarded as first). Hence, in negative and
> limiting contexts, Inferior (to none, only to...).  [Compare Latin
> nulli secundus.]
> ...
>  c. In designations of office, denoting the lower of two, or the next
> to the highest of several persons holding the same office; e.g. second
> captain, second lieutenant (see quots.), second lord (of the
> Admiralty, etc.), second master, second mistress (in a school), second
> mate (also in Naut. slang phrases referring to measures of liquor),
> second officer (in a merchant ship).

But there is no entry for "second quality" as it has now become "factory
seconds" (i.e., items that cannot be sold as "first quality" because
they are broken, damaged, or otherwise imperfectly made). That noun
(seconds) does find itself under second B. n. 5.

>  5. pl. Comm. A quality (of bricks, flour, etc.) second and inferior
> to the best. Also fig.

But even here, the meaning is just of inferiority, even though two of
the examples are more specific:

> 1942   E. Paul Narrow St. iii. 20   This friend was able to sequester
> from the large department-store stock 'seconds' which had no
> detectable imperfections.
> 1952 Amer. Speech 27 264   Textile products which... do not come up to
> standard quality are referred to as imperfects, seconds, and
> run-of-the-mill.

In particular, note the American Speech citation comparing seconds
(imperfects) and run-of-the-mill (now meaning "ordinary"). These are not
mere "not as good as" first-quality products, but they actually come
with blemishes and imperfections. Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but
the issue, to me, is suitability, not merely rank ordering. As such, I
would take these two citations out and add a separate subentry, and do
likewise for "first quality".

Also missing is the elliptical 'noun' first in "It's a first" (meaning
"first instance"). There is a listing for "first night" (premier) but
not "First Night" (January 1st/end of year celebration, apparently
started in Boston).

The American Dialect Society -

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