an antedating "how to"?

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Wed May 21 12:17:59 UTC 2014

Jon Lighter is one of the greatest historical lexicographers ever, and there is much wisdom in what he says here.  But I don't understand his statement that "One can't just pick a word and antedate it."  If one has access to and knows how to use a wide range of online historical databases, one can pick a word and have a fairly good chance of antedating it.  This is the difference between our era and the older era of historical-lexicographical research, where one could do focused research on some terms -- one could try to antedate the word "basketball," for example, by looking at secondary sources on the history of basketball, or primary sources from the milieu where the game incubated -- but for most terms one could only do random reading and hope to stumble on early usages of words, probably not the words you were looking for.

Ask me or Barry Popik or Stephen Goranson or Garson O'Toole or Ben Zimmer or Bonnie Taylor-Blake or Hugo whether one can "just pick a word and antedate it" and they'll tell you that very often you can do that.  Also look at the postings in response to the current OED Appeals.  And, for reasons I don't entirely understand, although the OED's database searchers seem to be very good and to use pretty much the same databases that I use, it may actually be easier to antedate terms that the OED has revised than ones it hasn't.  (The explanation may lie in the fact that the entries they have revised present very clear "targets" that contain clues as to what kinds of sources one should look at to improve on their already-good first uses.)

Fred Shapiro

From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Jonathan Lighter [wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 7:37 AM
Subject: Re: an antedating "how to"?

Yow! (as one of my professors used to say). This is a great question,
because it may never have been asked before.

I spent nearly forty years (count 'em) not only antedating words and
meanings but finding others that dictionaries didn't include. Back then the
OED, DAE, and DA were essentially the only relevant major dictionaries with

One can't just pick a word and antedate it.  In the Internet and Database
Age the odds are that the online OED revisions - as far as they go -
include the earliest antedatings from published sources anybody will ever
find of any given word. The number of antedatings posted here are minuscule
compared with the entire OED, and as far as I can tell very, very few
antedate the latest OED revisions.

The good news is that it's now possible in theory to antedate something
online in just a few minutes. When I was doing it, there *was no
Internet*.   The best way to antedate a word was to pick up an old book or
article on a particular subject and trust to luck.

That's how the OED used to do it too. Except they had lots of readers, not
just one.

Not very practical for a class assignment.

May I suggest a simpler exercise?  Why not have each student pick a word or
phrase that is new to them and seems lexicalized (you'll have to explain
what that means), and have them look the meaning and the earliest given
date in the OED. You should emphasize that the earliest given date of a
word will almost never be the date of its earliest actual use, because that
information is by its very nature unrecoverable.

If they can't find the item in the online OED, the next step is the Web.
And they'll almost certainly find what they're looking for.  The object, of
course, wouldn't be to find an antedating, just to familiarize the students
with the idea that their lexicon has a history that continues to evolve,
and that their preconceptions may well be wrong - always a valuable lesson.

Many may be surprised to see how much old their word or phrase really is.

(I still can't believe "awesome sauce!" goes back more than six months, but
maybe that's just me.)


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

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Beth Young <zbyoung at GMAIL.COM>
> 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?
> thanks,
> Beth Young
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list