Tracking down tofu: library research in the US

Tracking down tofu: library research in the US

Washington, DC, is rich in libraries. The Oxford English Dictionary employs two full-time library researchers on staff and one part-time freelancer there, assigned to the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library, the National Library of Medicine, and to other DC area libraries. My assignment requires that I spend approximately one day per week at the National Library of Medicine or the Folger, and the rest of my time in the many reading rooms scattered throughout the three buildings of the Library of Congress.

In much of my work, I use traditional book resources found in the general collections or in the Rare Book Division, but I also do quite a bit of searching in the Newspapers and Current Periodicals Reading Room, the Copyright Office, the Performing Arts Reading Room, the Motion Pictures and Recorded Sound Division, the Manuscripts Division, and the Law Library.

Shortly after beginning work for the OED, I was combing through a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, trying to find quotations from a ‘batch’ I had been asked to verify. Emerson’s discussion of language in his essay ‘The Poet’ struck me as especially pertinent to my daily treasure hunt for the ‘first use’ of words the OED editors assign to me for antedating:

The poet is the Namer, or Language-maker.. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history.. For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius.. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.. Language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

Suddenly I had a new reason to enjoy my work. I was discovering poems! Emerson said, ‘Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.’ Such an idea seemed to elevate my work beyond the mundane routine. Trust an American transcendentalist like Emerson to envision it in this new way! It is exciting to contemplate the possibility that in searching for new words, for the birth of a word, I am helping to clarify the original image or trope that has been obscured by time. It is easy to believe in the poetic origins of words as a reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library or while sitting in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress studying the writings of such elegant American word-crafters as Emerson and Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Henry James, and Zora Neale Hurston. However, it is a little more difficult to view my work this way when searching patents and trademarks for words such as biscuit cutter and pipe jack!

Research of any kind involves digging through written materials or significant objects to find an original moment that is sometimes arbitary. It is this homing in on the bit of information we are seeking that makes the process of searching and finding so delightful. Like an athlete at the top of his or her game, a researcher on a good day knows what it is to be ‘in the zone’, and it is this aspect of the work that is so addictive. Research uses both sides of the brain, intuitive and analytical, depends both on acquired knowledge and sudden insights or spontaneously perceived connections, and is constantly changing.

At times a word is known to have a specific origin. Words such as Ebonics (1973) or Pilates (1934) have specific coinages, as do many medical, botanical, and other scientific words. Others, especially slang words, may have elusive origins. In such cases, the increasing availability of searchable online texts enables us to find earlier dates for a first use. Some words, especially slang occurring in rap songs, prove almost impossible to find in print. Words that first occur in film scripts and television broadcasts are also difficult to pin down.

Depending on what materials are available at the Library of Congress, I may receive requests for research on words from English sources. I answer etymology requests using older rare sources in Latin, French, German, and Dutch, as well. However, many requests do involve words of known American origin. I often receive requests having to do with baseball and other American sports, Native American words and tribal names, African American slang, words from the Wild West, and from the film and broadcasting industry and popular culture. I have worked on the history of such American words and phrases as mind-meld (Star Trek, 1968), vavoom (Art Carney’s sheet music, 1954), Little League (1939), bike path (1894), imagineer (1942), wildcrafting (1969), nature faking and nature fakers (1907), bandit country (1907), urban legend (1968), and duck tape (1902). Some of these poetic words have been published online, while the editors are still considering others.

Obviously I cannot share all my favourite word stories, but one story involves an antedating I found by serendipity, while searching for the assigned word garbanzo. (All the library researchers seem to enjoy researching ‘food words’. I have researched quite a number of Mexican food words, such as huevos rancheros (1901) and guacamole (1920), as well as terms from Italian, Chinese, and American cookery, but I can tell you that on days I’m working on food words, lunchtime can’t arrive too soon!)

Searching for examples of garbanzo led me to a 1770 letter from Benjamin Franklin to the American botanist John Bartram, in which Franklin used the word garavances, possibly a variant of garbanzos. As it happened, the letter was about a new recipe that Franklin had acquired, for Chinese tau-fu. Both Bartram and Franklin were vegetarians, which explains their interest. Franklin wrote:

I send.. some Chinese Garavances, with Father Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China… Some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds. I think we have Garavances with us; but I know not whether they are same with these, which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of.

The earliest example of tofu currently in the OED is 1880, so this is an antedating of more than one hundred years. The editors have not yet considered it for publication, and further research may be necessary.

Researching words seems to have a dusty glamour. I am always surprised at how many people, of a variety of backgrounds and professions, are fascinated by my work. In the old days when I returned my work by mail, the postman always asked what words I was sending to the Dictionary; the plumber who came to fix my kitchen sink owned a copy of the tiny-print OED; a recorder in the Copyright Office always asks me for the word du jour when he greets me in the cafeteria; a neighbour who is a music teacher tells me that her class invented a new word when they were composing a song. People from all walks of life seem to own a dictionary, if no other book. But as Emerson said, ‘Bare lists of words are found suggestive, to an imaginative and excited mind.’

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.