an antedating "how to"?

Beth Young zbyoung at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 20 19:48:03 UTC 2014

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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