Still dung wet? Discovering an unexpected lexical survival on Twitter
A few weeks ago, the Aldabra rail hit the headlines. This little-known flightless wading bird, named for the coral attol in the greater Seychelles to which it is endemic, has been identified by scientists as a rare example of iterative evolution. Its immediate ancestor, the—flying—white-throated rail, it turns out, colonized Aldabra at least once before, evolving into a flightless species or subspecies adapted to its new home, and basically identical to the Aldabra rails of today. The population of this earlier flightless rail species was, as the fossil record shows, wiped out 136,000 years ago, when rising sea levels subsumed Aldabra, but the island’s subsequent re-emergence from the Indian Ocean was followed by a fresh colonization by white-throated rails, and the subsequent (re-) evolution of today’s Aldabra rails.
As lexicographers of English, we have a much shorter (if fuller) ‘fossil record’ to explore than evolutionary biologists and palaeontologists, but nonetheless we quite often find ourselves confronted by a gap in the history of a word or sense which might be explained in various different ways. Sometimes a particular word seems not to have been recorded in the kind of documents which have come down to us, so we lack any evidence for their continued currency; words and senses found in Old or Middle English can sometimes make a reappearance in later, regional contexts, having never made their way into the mainstream varieties of Early Modern and Modern English—the story of the survival of the Old English adverb ahoo was recently highlighted by the OED’s Free the Word National Poetry Day campaign, for example.
In other cases, a word appears likely to have appeared more than once, being independently reformed or recoined, often a considerable time after an earlier period of currency has come to an end. In some cases, that such a reformation is genuinely made without reference to earlier occurrence seems very likely, as when an apparently obsolete word reappears to fill a particular lexical gap in a new context or subject area. For instance, the adjective multiversant, reappears in a specialized, ecological sense in the late 1960s, 75 years after it fell out of more general use. Sometimes a particular combination of elements or compounding of two words will reoccur for less obviously specialized reasons, put together anew by a writer or speaker because they are particularly evocative, or amusing, or unusual; this seems to be the case with the compound adjective winter-cold, part of Old English poetic vocabulary, but seemingly entirely absent from the record of the language for 800 years, until Isaac Bickerstaff made use of it in 1763.
Last year’s revision of dung and related entries in OED revealed a puzzling case of possible lexical resurrection, but is it a case of continued currency, for which the evidence is missing, or a case of independent re-formation?
The evocative compound dung-wet, meaning ‘wet through; sodden, very wet’ (literally, ‘as wet as fresh dung’) was marked as obsolete by the editors of the first edition of OED, represented by two quotations covering only four years of use at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
A quotation from the Middle English Dictionary allowed us to antedate the first edition’s evidence by 150 years, while our own reading programme supplied a 1770 quotation from the diaries of Colonel Landon Carter, a Virginia planter, describing freshly hung tobacco as ‘really stinking and dung wet’. The only later evidence for the compound—in a novel from 1992—appeared to be in a different, isolated (and more transparent) sense, meaning ‘wet with dung’. Without further evidence, this new quotation could, probably, be safely noted in the OED files, but ignored in the revised entry as a one-off recoinage, rather than a survival of the earlier combination.
There’s no point in searching Twitter . . . is there?
Given this picture of a phrase which appeared to have fallen out of use before the nineteenth century, only to be recoined in a different sense in a particular literary context in the late twentieth century, searching Twitter seemed unlikely to yield much of any use. At best, it might be expected to provide further evidence of the new sense illustrated in our 1992 quotation, making it easier to justify treating this sense alongside the historically much more frequent, but now obsolete, earlier sense.
In fact, nothing emerged from Twitter which made our 1992 quotation seem any less isolated and unusual. Instead, we were surprised to find that the original sense appeared to be alive and well, in a specific regional context; a search returned (along with expected false hits) a cluster of results which seemed to show the phrase in use in Caribbean English:
Dung wet, or down wet?
For anyone familiar with Caribbean English, this rediscovery of an apparently obsolete word featuring ‘dung’ in the region will have caused alarm bells to ring: ‘dung’ is the form often taken by the adverb and preposition down in representations of some varieties of colloquial Caribbean speech.
Sure enough, search results for ‘dung wet’ on Twitter include results from Caribbean contexts referring to something slipping like a ‘bobsled sliding dung [i.e. down a] wet hill’, and several examples in which the phrase to shell dung, or ‘shoot down’, meaning to ‘take (something) by storm, to have great success in (a particular place or situation)’, is collocated with the name of various music events and parties with ‘wet’ in their name:
However, these combinations of the verbs slide and shell and the preposition and adverb dung (down) are easily distinguishable from what seems clearly to be an adjectival phrase meaning ‘very wet, wet through’, in ‘my braids still dung wet’, or ‘looks dung wet with sweat’. Could this phrase still be a combination of a variant of down with wet? Searches for ‘down wet’ in similar constructions produced nothing comparable (Twitter searches for ‘dong wet’, using another Caribbean variant of down, were eye-opening, but not tremendously helpful). Meanwhile, the Caribbean dictionaries in the OED library offer little in the way of encouragement (there seems little to connect this to prepositional and adjectival uses of down which refers rivers in spate) for a down wet analysis.
Given the pre-existence of dung wet in what seems to be exactly the right sense, the most economical explanation seems to be that this new Caribbean evidence shows either an unexpected survival of the phrase used by the author of the Middle English Mom and Sothsegger, and Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe, or an independent re-formation by later users.
Closing the gap: some twentieth-century evidence
The evidence from Twitter prompted us to do some further digging around, turning up evidence from 1946 in County Waterford in Ireland, in the pages of the Dungarvan Observer, and from 1942 in a representation of Virgin Islands creole from the Daily News, published in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands:
This last quotation is a particularly good fit with our twenty-first-century evidence: the Twitter user whose tweets provided us with our representative postdating quotation gives her location as ‘Atlanta by way of St Thomas’, and in fact more than half of the handful of users of the phrase on Twitter come from St Thomas or its US Virgin Islands neighbour St Croix (further users from Jamaica and Grenada seem to show that it has a wider geographical spread within the Caribbean).
A large gap still exists in our evidence for dung wet. However, the fact that our existing evidence shows that the phrase had already made a voyage to the plantations of the New World before its apparent demise in the late eighteenth century, and the fact that its strongest presence in our later evidence is from the Caribbean, is suggestive. This, combined with its occurrence in another, distinct and separate regional variety of English—in Ireland—in the twentieth century, seems to make a story of continuous survival, albeit one not fully recorded in written English, the simplest and most likely explanation for our quotations: an expression which died out in the most immediately visible and (in terms of bulk alone) textually productive forms of English, continued in use in one or two linguistic contexts. As we saw earlier, this is not an unusual story of the way words and meanings survive in dialectal and regional use long after they’ve ceased to be part of more culturally privileged, standardized, ‘mainstream’ usage; however, it is an illustration of how social media, and Twitter in particular, can help us to identify such survivals, and to provide us with an unexpected 250-year postdating for an phrase which the editors of the first edition of OED understandably regarded as long obsolete in 1897.
That said, this is only our best available explanation; if you have any examples of use that would help us to bridge the gap between 1770 and the 1940s in our entry for dung wet, or if you think our evidence should be reanalysed, please let us know!
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.