A bear of many brains: the revision of bear, n.1

A bear of many brains: the revision of bear, n.1

In the March 2020 update to the OED, our entry for bear, n.1 found itself in the paws of our revision editors. The process of taking the ‘bear’ that appeared to readers of the OED first and second editions (which you can view here) and licking it into shape for the third edition was one of many stages.

We would like to share with you the steps a word goes through during the revision process, and the roles our editors played in revising the entry for bear, n.1, in particular…

Science research

Ruth Arstall, Editor (Research): Science

The scientific senses of bear, n.1 range from zoological senses to astronomical constellations, technical industrial senses, and a large variety of compounds (including the names of plants and animals). In researching an OED entry for evidence of a word’s usage, we make use of our extensive in-house electronic database (including quotations already in the OED) and our paper slips of quotation evidence, together with a variety of external databases. The priority is seeking the earliest evidence of each sense, and, in this case, the indispensable EEBO (Early English Books Online) database yielded an interesting 16th century example of the meaning ‘anteater’ (cf. the entry ant bear, n.), which now provides the first quotation for sense 1b:

Science edit

Trish Stewart, Editor: OED Science

Revising the science senses of bear makes one aware of just how many different types of bears there are roaming around the OED! In terms of animals, ‘bear’ is used to refer to the usual suspects – black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, etc. – which belong to the scientific family Ursidae. But it is also used to refer to other animals that remind us of bears in some way – koala bears, woolly bears, water bears, even anteaters… So when we revised the entry bear, we needed to make sure we covered both these usages of it, which gave us senses 1a and 1b. These two senses are where we cover, or include links to, bears whose names follow the pattern ‘X bear’, or who are referred to simply as bears.

The Compounds section C2 (b) covers a number of different plants and animals whose names follow the pattern ‘bear X’. A bear animalcule is a tardigrade, or water bear, and it has stumpy little legs, claws, and a stocky body. Bear worm refers to a fuzzy caterpillar. Bears like to eat the acorns produced by the bear oak. Bear’s ear has leaves (somewhat) shaped like a bear’s ear. Many of these types of compounds have more than one sense, and are treated as separate entries in the OED. It seems that lots of plants and animals are similar to bears, or maybe it’s that bears are so memorable we can’t help naming other things after them.


Janet Gough, Junior Editor: OED Research

It is indeed heartening and a thing of beauty to see so many and varied bears and bear-like creatures roaming freely through the OED.

Sadly, these creatures have not always been accorded such freedom. The term bear-baiting is attested in the written language as early as 1400, and, English being a language that adores its metaphors and transferred uses of the literal, the earliest evidence found for the figurative use –‘deliberate provocation or ridicule; a display of such behaviour’ – is 1557: It was more like a bearebaiting of disordered persons, than a parlement of wise and graue men.

The early 19th century saw the advent of the bear pit, an enclosure where the baiting of bears and other animals took place as a spectacle for the public. First attested in the written language in 1820 in its literal use, less than 40 years later (1859), research found the first evidence for the figurative use, with this example: The rotten, selfish, strife-creating network of institutions, which have transformed the world into a bear-pit.

Due to the amount, quality, and variety of evidence found, both of these compound forms have been upgraded during the revision process; that is, they were felt to have such a life of their own, that instead of being simply treated at the main entry for bear, n.1, they have now been given the status of headwords in their own right. This is a process which happens frequently during revision, as we trace the development and growth of words and word-forms (lemmas) in the language.

General revision

Molly Richards, Junior Editor: OED Revision

As the general revision editor, my job is to make sure that each non-scientific sense is well-defined, informative, and up to date, and that the overall structure of the entry is coherent. The definition for to play the bear previously had the rather archaic-sounding ‘to play the deuce with’ as part of its definition. This has been replaced with ‘to do mischief; to cause severe harm, damage, or disruption’.  The definition at 5a has also been changed, this time in the interest of accuracy; rather than ‘Russia’, it says ‘Russia, or (more widely) its former empire or the former Soviet Union’, since the geographic region which is meant changes depending on which time period is under discussion.

The structure of the entry has also changed. OED entries always go in chronological order, but related senses are grouped together. Therefore, all the senses to do with bear as an animal are at sense 1, while people likened to bears in various ways – either because they are grumpy, or hairy, or unrefined – are grouped together at sense 3.

Many of the phrases that contain the word bear were previously grouped together at a single sense: during revision a number of these were separated out and defined. So if you’ve ever wondered what it means to take a bear by the tooth or to carry guts to a bear, now’s your chance to find out, instead of being like a bear with a sore head.

Some of compounds that were previously at the entry for bear are no longer there – they’ve been made into their own headwords. This usually happens when there is something more complex about the word’s use or it has multiple senses. Bear sign, n, is one such example; the first sense is ‘the trail or trace of a bear, such as droppings, tracks, etc.’ Among the cowboys of North America, it later became a slang term for doughnuts, apparently because of their resemblance to bear droppings!

Finally, many of the senses and compounds at bear relate to the Stock Market, and the trading of stock when its price falls or is expected to fall (the opposite is bull, n.1). This is a good example of some of the technical or specialist senses that OED editors have to tackle: OED editors will research the sense and write a definition based on the knowledge they accumulate, before sending it out to a specialist in the field for expert advice to ensure it is accurate.


Anthony Esposito, Executive Editor: OED Etymology

This was a really interesting and varied etymology to work on. The etymology from the OED first edition was very basic, not much more than a short list of cognates and a tentative suggestion for the ulterior origin. My first step was to check and collate all the historical spelling variants, adding new forms and geographical provenance (where appropriate), and marking the most common spellings in all periods. Then I verified and greatly extended the list of cognate forms from other languages. The newly-added Gothic compound bairabagms mulberry (literally ‘bear-tree’) warranted a note pointing out the remarkable parallels in modern Scandinavian words meaning ‘blackberry’ as well as bearberry, n. Apparently fruits of the forest are a favourite of bears!

The further etymology of the Germanic base required some research, especially because modern scholarship is divided. After taking advice from academic colleagues expert in Indo-European philology, I presented the two competing theories in what I felt to be the most likely order: (i) from the same Indo-European base as brown (from the bear’s colour); or (ii) from the same Indo-European base as a Greek word meaning ‘wild beast’ (by semantic narrowing, because bears represented the most important wild beast of northern Europe). I thought it was also worth noting that the Germanic word is itself a neologism, which (presumably for reasons of taboo avoidance) had supplanted the original Indo-European word for ‘bear’.

After adding a note on some of the odder spellings, I went on to explain the precise derivation of specific (and less obvious) senses of the English word. Why in U.S. trucker slang is a highway patrol officer called a ‘bear’? Because the wide brimmed hat worn by these officers resembles that worn by the character Smokey Bear in a wildfire prevention campaign. Why is Russia called ‘the bear’? Because it was perceived as a wild country populated by bears (and is depicted as a bear in political cartoons from the 1730s onwards). Why are bears associated with the Stock Market? Because it originally echoed the proverbial phrase ‘to sell the bearskin before one has caught the bear’ (perfectly reflecting the speculative practice of selling stock that the seller does not yet hold in the expectation of buying it cheaply before delivery is due and retaining the difference from the selling price as profit).


Lynne Doy, Executive Editor: OED Bibliography

Once the entry had been edited and all new quotations added, the Bibliography team got to work on verifying the illustrative quotations.  The name of our team suggests that the principal source of our quotations is books, but our role has developed along with the range of sources available to us to cite: bear, n. includes quotations from newspapers (including an American comic strip from the early 1900s), magazines, academic journals, tweets, and a 1970s pop song (C. W. McCall’s ‘Convoy’).

The bibliographers work on quotations from the beginning of the 16th century onwards. Since the quotations are used to arrange the senses into chronological order, our main task is confirming that the earliest quotation for each sense is correctly dated, and that we explore any possibility that the quotation might have been published in an earlier source (such as the original serialization of a 19th-century novel in a periodical). We did this with the quotations in bear, n.1, also ensuring that quotations were cited according to our house style, answering questions from editors and researchers about anything quotation-related, and, when we were unable to find out everything we needed to know about a source or a quotation from our extensive in-house resources, sending out requests to our library research team, which has researchers in several libraries in the UK and US.  We can therefore confirm that the all-important quotations in this entry from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and House at Pooh Corner (1928) are correctly cited from first editions.


Edmund Weiner, Executive Editor: OED Finalization

The task of the Finalization team is, roughly speaking, to ensure that OED content produced by other teams is of the appropriate quality and internally consistent ahead of extraction for publication (or any other kind of outside use). There are generally about five main aspects to keep an eye on.

1. Minor slips of spelling or wording or style that everyone occasionally makes (usually very few). I spotted a work title which needed an initial capital letter, and one case of a pair of straight apostrophes used where curved quote marks were needed!

2. Internal entry structure. This usually only concerns large entries with a long and complicated history, such as major verbs (e.g. in the March 2020 update range of entries, bear, v.1). The reviser made some structural changes to bear, n.1, entirely consistent with practice in other similar entries for animal terms.

3. The wording of defining text. Here everything was very straightforward, the only problem being an odd phrase accidentally left in the main definition and deleted while I was still finalizing!

4. Overall consistency among series of related entries. This wasn’t an issue in the case of BEAR n.1

5. Asking oneself critical questions to ensure that what’s being said in any part of an entry is true and accurate, or that something important isn’t being overlooked. There are often miscellaneous cultural, historical, or literary matters in the ‘Phrases’ section. The bear, n.1, Phrases section, includes, among other things, allusions to Yogi Bear, Winnie the Pooh, and the biblical story of Elisha and the Bears, all handled clearly (and interestingly).

Once an entry has been fully revised, it is ready to be published in the OED Third Edition. The entry for bear, n.1, which encompasses states and students, questionable foods, police helicopters, and a variety of animals that are actually not even bears, can be viewed in its entirety here.

At the risk of making them blush, it’s fair to say that our editors are such bears at this kind of thing.

Now you’re smarter than the average bear about the OED revision process, learn about the new ‘bear’ words added to the OED in the March 2020 update from our New Words Editor Craig Leyland: read the release notes here.

Header image by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

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