‘mammoth’

John-Simpson
By John Simpson, chief editor, OED

What does the OED‘s entry for the word mammoth tell us about the development of the word in English?

Take a brief look at the entry as a whole: before you reach the different meanings of the word as a noun and as an adjective you’ll find the modern pronunciation, a list of ways the word was spelled from the 1700s onwards, and a fairly complex etymology (which is itself quite revealing).

All of the earliest quotations indicate that English-speakers first encountered the word as a result of the discovery of mammoth bones in Siberia. If ‘read’ carefully, this information can tell us a lot about the emergence and development of the word mammoth.

Elephant-like mammals

We’ll look first at the primary meaning: a prehistory elephant-like mammal (sense 1a of the noun). The definition is accompanied by a series of quotations showing a number of printed sources in which the word is found since its first appearance in English.

The first two quotations (1618 and 1698) are presented in square brackets. This means that they are not actual instances of our word, but quotations which give some information about related words at a time before mammoth itself is first recorded in English (1706). All of the earliest quotations indicate that English-speakers first encountered the word as a result of the discovery of mammoth bones in Siberia, and this suggests to lexicographers (or dictionary-compilers) that the word may have entered English from one of the languages in that area. Now look at the first six quotations: all of them derive from dictionaries or from accounts of travellers (often in translation). It’s not until 1803 that we find a quotation referring to mammoths in the West (when a mammoth skeleton was exhibited as a curiosity at the Royal Academy in London). Later quotations from the nineteenth century and later come from literature and technical texts, showing that the word had become by then more familiar to English-speakers.

So how does this all fit in with the etymology? Well, the etymology says that mammoth entered English by way of the old Russian word mamant, found in a phrase which means ‘mammoth’s bone’—not surprisingly, since it was as a result of the discovery of mammoth bones that the prehistoric animal first came to the notice of modern observers. The etymology shows that the Russian word is recorded from 1578. This is interesting, as the first English examples date from a hundred or so years later: so didn’t English-speakers know about the mammoth until later, or did they use a different word for the animal? Down at the bottom of the etymology you can see that words for mammoth entered the continental European languages from 1705 onwards. We can identify a wave of interest in this curious beast throughout Europe from around 1700 onwards (which fits in with the English evidence).

So that brings the word into English, and how did it develop after that? The nineteenth century saw major changes in the word’s use. As a noun it was applied to another prehistoric elephant, the mastodon, from 1815 onwards. In fact, this doesn’t fit the scientific evidence, as the mastodon isn’t really particularly closely related to the mammoth, but it was another big prehistoric elephant, so (in the light of knowledge at the time) it wasn’t surprising that it was called after the real mammoth. But as scientific knowledge improved this sense died out (1850), as more correct terminology took its place.

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Metaphorical mammoths

Mammoth comes to be applied metaphorically to anything of ‘huge size’. The prehistoric mammoth was a marvel and a curiosity; it stuck in the European mind as something absolutely remarkable. And so it’s not surprising that it came to mean anything huge, remarkable, almost unbelievable on account of its size (much the same had happened to the words monster and giant). The first instances of this adjectival use occur in the United States, and at first seem to refer to a large cheese presented to the President Thomas Jefferson

If you look at the next meaning, that of the adjective ‘mammoth’, you see that this shift of meaning seems to have happened slightly earlier in the adjective (not surprisingly). The shift of use from a prehistoric mammoth (noun) to something of mammoth proportions (adjective), for example, isn’t unusual and is of a type well recorded elsewhere in the language. Note that the first instances of this adjectival use occur in the United States, and at first seem to refer to a large cheese presented to the President Thomas Jefferson (which is just the sort of event that gives a word a boost)!

So what have we got? We’ve got mammoth bones discovered in Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We’ve got the word mammoth then found in English (from Russian) in the eighteenth century. We’ve got a side alley as the term is applied to another prehistoric mammal, the mastodon. And then we find the word catching on much more widely in the West and being applied to anything remarkably large, anything as remarkable to modern European eyes as the prehistoric mammoth must have seemed.

A big word for a big mammal. But a word with a development which can be explained, in retrospect, from a mixture of linguistic, social, and cultural factors, all emerging from the OED‘s entry.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. along with mammoth, there are further Word Stories, including precarious, digital, information, in the Aspects of English section of the OED Online.
  2. in addition to mamet, the OED includes nearly 500 words in English derived from Slavonic languages—including pirog (1662), vodka (1802), and babushka (1938).
  3. Thomas Jefferson is listed in the OED as the first quoted source for 380 meanings of words (including mammoth) and 106 new words, among them cross-street (1825), neologize (1813), and shag (1770).

How do I search for this? With subscriber access, use Advanced search to find words originating in non-English languages (here, European languages/then Slavonic). Or use Browse Sources to identify the top 1000 authors and titles that provide evidence for new words, or meanings of words, in the OED. Thomas Jefferson appears at no. 204 in this list. You can also read more about Jefferson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which includes entries on thousands of people who shaped the English language.

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