Release notes: a big antedating for white lie – and introducing Shakespeare’s world

By Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor of the OED

A new antedating of the expression white lie by almost two centuries, from 1741 to 1567, shows one of the first fruits of Shakespeare’s World, a collaboration between the OED, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., and the Oxford-based crowdsourcing specialists Zooniverse.

In this collaboration, volunteers are using an interface created by Zooniverse to read and transcribe manuscript materials, such as personal letters or recipe books, from the Folger’s unique collections. In the case of the antedating of white lie, the new 1567 example comes from a letter of April 10 1567 from Ralph Adderley to Sir Nicholas Bagnall. As part of a (rather frank and not entirely flattering) brief character sketch of his brother-in-law John Bagot, Ralph Adderley observes:

I do assure you he is vnsusspected of any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye) wiche is taken for a Small fawte in thes partes.

The full context for this OED quotation can be seen at , where you can also see a regularized version of the same sentence:

I do assure you he is unsuspected of any untruth or other notable crime (except a white lie) which is taken for a Small fault in these parts.

Or you can view the original manuscript letter, the relevant part of which looks like this:

This example illustrates well the real value of Shakespeare’s World for the OED. The entry for white lie was only recently revised as part of the OED revision programme, but we were unable to find any other examples as early as this. Additionally, manuscript material of this sort helps to open up perspectives on aspects of early modern English life and writing that are not so well represented in other resources, such as the vast (and completely invaluable) collection of printed books of the period, Early English Books Online (EEBO).

The way this collaboration works is that volunteers are offered a manuscript to transcribe when they log on. Behind the scenes, once each manuscript has been transcribed by three different volunteers, a composite transcription is checked over by the Folger’s expert palaeographers, and then published on the Folger’s Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) site.  EMMO gives diplomatic, semi-diplomatic, and regularized transcriptions of each manuscript (a diplomatic transcription maintains all features of the original, such as abbreviations, insertions, and original punctuation, while a regularized transcription modernizes spelling and normalizes other features, to aid rapid reading and electronic searching). Additionally, EMMO provides high quality images of the original manuscript, which can be viewed alongside the transcription in any of the three formats. This provides OED readers with an important tool for seeing evidence in its original context.

If this whets your appetite to learn more about the Shakespeare’s World project – and perhaps even to volunteer to transcribe some material yourself – do pay a visit to You’ll find full details there on how to sign up, plus a helpful guide to reading secretary hands like the one above, and instructions on how to get transcribing.

As an additional incentive to get involved, OUP will be happy to give free access to OED Online for any Shakespeare’s World participants who have made more than 500 transcriptions (of up to a line each) in the past year. If you fall in that category, then please contact us with the subject line ‘Shakespeare’s World OED access’.