OED antedating update: looking back at M-R

OED antedating update: looking back at M-R

Back in May 2020, OED launched its latest in a long line of crowdsourcing initiatives, asking members of the public to seek out earlier evidence for entries in the alphabetical range M-R. This was significant as although it focused on a part of the alphabet that we had updated in the early 2000s, we knew that databases that we now use routinely didn’t really exist back then and were likely to prove extremely fruitful sources of quotation evidence. You can read more about this project here and find the form to submit your own findings.

In the 6 months or so since our last update, the antedatings have continued to pour in. To date we have had well over 1000 submissions from the form alone, which is astonishing, gratifying, and useful in equal measure. Others have chosen to submit their antedatings via Twitter using the hashtag #oedantedatings. What is most startling is that we haven’t had any duplication of effort – no two people have submitted the same antedating. Perhaps after all this isn’t all that surprising: M-R covers a sizeable part of the alphabet after all, so there are a lot of words from which to choose your target.

A small selection of the many submissions we received via Twitter

It’s fascinating to see which words people have selected for their detective work. There’s clearly at least one keen classical music fan among the antedaters; and searching for parish pumper probably led on to parish pumpery and maybe parish councillor (or perhaps the other way around). The most spectacular examples will always be those which antedate by the largest number of years. We’ve had some in triple figures:

  • mulish (151 years)
  • monkishly (127 years)
  • quippery (108 years)

And plenty too in double figures:

  • night watchman (69 years)
  • passengerless (60 years)
  • operettist (66 years)
  • outflanker (66 years)
  • patienthood (80 years)
  • marksmanship (42 years)
  • piano wire (50 years)

But for a historical lexicographer more modest antedatings are just as exciting and welcome; adding an antedating of 1 year for a word which only started to be used towards the end of the 20th century can be every bit as satisfying—and as significant, in terms of adding to our understanding of the history of the language—as adding a 100-year-old antedating to a longer-established word elsewhere.

The following have all “only” been bettered by fewer than 5 years but are no less important for it:

  • pogo (the dance) (1 year)
  • poptastic (2 years)
  • rockumentary (1 year)
  • rhubarb (as a verb, describing the murmuring noise actors make by repeating the word ‘rhubarb’) (3 years)
  • national anthem (3 years)

A quick note on other areas of the alphabet. A small number of submissions have included evidence for words outside the alphabetical spread of M-R. All of this material is noted, with any evidence relating to entries we are yet to tackle being noted for when that day comes. Our main focus has been on the M-R words.

It’s perhaps worth noting that OED entries are the culmination of the work of many individuals, and that the contributions of these individuals—including antedatings—are not separately acknowledged; in fact the vast majority of the antedatings received as part of this appeal have been submitted anonymously. We also have a number of long-term contributors who regularly send in material from their own reading or research away from any specific appeals or initiatives. We continue to be grateful for every contribution; antedatings, and indeed other contributions we receive, all add to our knowledge about the words of our language. So, if you have made a contribution: thank you. We would like to think that the satisfaction of seeing the OED’s documentation of the language improved, quotation by quotation, word by word, is its own reward.

Of course, the submission of the antedating is only the beginning. They are taken from a wide variety of databases; sometimes we can supplement the contributions of public with further checking in other databases, and in some cases further verification of quotations is needed, and we’re very grateful to our own library researchers for the tireless work they’ve put in on this. On occasion, the addition of earlier evidence has implications for other parts of that entry, like the etymology or list of variant spellings, as well as other related entries.  And this all takes place alongside our current editorial work, the fruits of which are published on our website every three months. Which means, if the antedating you have submitted is yet to show up, don’t despair. There’s always the next quarterly update.

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.