an antedating "how to"?

Beth Young zbyoung at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 18 00:25:49 UTC 2014

Thanks to everyone who commented on my earlier message asking about a
how-to antedating guide. In case anyone is interested, I've put together a
brief guide based on those comments and pasted plain text of it below. It
remains to be seen whether my students will try it out.


Beth Young

****Antedating the OED: A How-To Guide****

Antedating an OED entry probably won't appeal to everyone, but a few of you
might enjoy the challenge. You might enjoy it even more if you work in

This activity will help you better understand the kind of crowdsourcing
that made the OED possible, as well as what's involved in lexicographical
research generally. Also, this activity has a real-world application--it
will let you contribute to the OED, one of the greatest language resources
in the English language.

You definitely don't need to be an expert linguist to antedate words!  Here
 is an account of how Nathaniel Sharpe, a 22-year-old amateur genealogist
from a small town in North Dakota near the border with Canada, was able to
antedate the term scalawag:

***Choose which word(s) to look for:

You can only antedate words that the OED already contains. Some words will
be easier to antedate than others. Think carefully about the evidence
available to you and the likelihood that the OED lexicographers have
already searched that evidence. For example, you probably should NOT search

* Extremely old words. If the earliest illustrative OED quotation dates
from the OE period, you would need to find evidence of the word used in an
even earlier manuscript. How many OE manuscripts do you have lying around
that the OED lexicographers don't already know about? (Zero.)

* Extremely rare words. The more rare the word, the less likely you are to
find it used at all, much less to antedate the OED records.

* Extremely new entries. If the OED lexicographers have just finished
updating the entry for your word, that means they have recently searched
intensively through various online databases. Unless you're planning to
search in places that they don't know about, you probably won't have any
antedating luck. (Though at least one expert says that it can be easier to
antedate the newer entries, because their sources are useful clues to where
they have searched, so you can figure out where else to look.)

Instead, try looking for

* words where the first illustrative quotations date from 1800-1923
* words for which entries were written before 1990 (i.e., before the
* words that relate to specialized databases you can access (see below)
* words that the OED has appealed to readers to help locate:

To get an idea of the sorts of antedatings researchers have already found,
check the archives of the ADS-L listserv (search for "antedating"):

***Decide where/how to search:

Look through the illustrative quotations the OED provides for the
word/sense you're looking for. The date of the earliest quotation should be
the end of your search window.

The beginning of your search window should be a date that is plausible. For
example, if you're trying to antedate an automobile-related word, you don't
need to search earlier than the date the automobile was invented. You may
find that your search window is constrained by the database you're

Consider looking for an online archive related to your word's topic. For
example, if your word relates to hot air ballooning, maybe there is an
archive of back issues of Ballooning Magazine. (I don't know that there
is--this is just an example.)

Watch for signs that a writer thought the word or expression was
particularly clever or up-to-date, such as setting it off with quotation
marks or italics, or introducing it by saying something like, "as the boys
say" or "to use a Kentucky expression" (KY having once been a wild
frontier). Unfortunately, typographical tricks can't be entered into a
search engine, but they can help you find antedatings in texts you're
reading for another purpose.

Don't search where you know that the OED lexicographers have already
searched. If the OED's earliest illustrative quotation comes from Punch
magazine, it's likely that there aren't any earlier citations in Punch
magazine or the lexicographers would have found them.

Additional information on search strategies:
(this one relates to memes, but it is also helpful for searching newer
(google tips and tricks)

Some online databases to search in:
a list of sites for researching etymology; Bill Mullins' giant list
of publicly accessible full-text databases

Resources: see the class links on etymology, which can help you figure out
which avenues are probably not worth exploring

UCF Special Collections:  An overview guide is here:  A UCF librarian recommended
two tabs from that overview guide: University Archives (which contains the
Central Florida Future archive, which has searchable .pdfs), and Central
Florida Memory (which has a selection of some old local Florida papers).
 Also, the library's guide to News & Newspapers ( ) links to any full
content the library provides either through subscription or Open
Access--you might especially be interested in the Florida Historical
Newspaper section.  (I find these sites to be a tad confusing, but maybe
that means the OED lexicographers won't have bothered to search them!)

Databases that UCF subscribes to: Click UCF Library Tools in the left
toolbar, then choose a likely database. Databases that might be useful
include:  American Periodical Series; British Periodicals; Congressional
Serial Set, Google Books, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early
American Imprints, Early English Books Online, Florida Heritage, Florida
Historical Legal Documents, HarpWeek, JSTOR, Latino Literature 1850- ,
LexisNexis Academic, National Geographic, Nineteenth Century Collections
Online, New York Times, Historical - ProQuest, Sabin Americana Digital
Archive, Vogue Archive, Women Writers Project.

Your public library back home might also have useful databases (e.g.,
ProQuest Historical Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers,
NewspaperArchive,, GenealogyBank, British Newspapers

If you subscribe to any newspapers or magazines, you might be able to
access full-text online archives of past issues.

***Know what evidence you need:

The OED needs primary sources only: verifiable evidence that the word was
used on a particular date. In practice, this means only precisely dated
citations, verified from original print sources or reliable facsimile
images. (Here is a UCF library guide to primary sources:

Things students have submitted in the past that do NOT count:

* Entries from another dictionary. Maybe the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
says the word dates from 1907, earlier than the first illustrative
quotation in the OED. I'm sure the MWD has evidence for its date, but
unless you have the same evidence (a citation that is dated 1907,
verifiable from the original print source or a reliable facsimile), it
doesn't count.

* Entries from a different sense of the word in the OED. Maybe you think a
particular quotation illustrates sense 2a better than sense 2c, but the OED
doesn't think so. Find evidence that the OED lexicographers haven't seen,
not evidence that you think they have mischaracterized.

* Articles that describe earlier usages. Journalists love to run articles
claiming various origins for a given word or expression. But the
unsupported claim of a 21st century journalist means little--you need to
find the primary source, the word actually in use on the earlier date. An
article from 1998 that claims a word was coined in 1898 doesn't count.

* Entries where the word does not appear. Maybe you can type the words "Sam
Browne" into a search engine and get some great images of a "Sam Browne
belt," but unless the images themselves contain the words "Sam Browne,"
that doesn't count. (After all, it probably was a modern editor who
attached the keywords "Sam Browne" to that image.) If you're looking for
the expression "Sam Browne belt," you need to find that expression in use.

What does count? Primary source evidence, verifiable from the original
print source or a reliable facsimile, that the word was used on a
particular date.

In particular, you need all the information required by the OED submission
form, plus a quotation long enough to show how the word is being used:

The OED prefers evidence drawn from print publications because it is more
stable and therefore more easily re-traceable in the future.

For more information about what the OED accepts, see here:

Also see the FAQs about contributions here:

***Take good notes!

Keep track of what you search for, where you search, how you searched, and
why. I will consider awarding points for detailed accounts of high-quality
searches even if they do not result in successful antedatings.

Many thanks to Fred Shapiro, Jonathan Lighter, Stephen Goranson, Bonnie
Taylor-Blake, W. Brewer, Gerald Cohen, Hugo, Clai Rice, George Thompson,
Dan Goncharoff, Katherine Martin, Damien Hall, and all the ADS-L members
who helped me compile this how-to.

On Tue, May 20, 2014 at 3:48 PM, Beth Young <zbyoung at> wrote:

> 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?
> thanks,
> Beth Young

The American Dialect Society -

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