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Updating the OED V: Old words!

Here's a neat feature of the online OED. (Alas! You can only connect if you or your institution has a subscription. So if you can't get there, and if you don't have the paper copy, you'll just have to take my word for it. Well, for the online interface stuff I'm talking about, even the paper copy doesn't work....)

As you look at the definition of a word, the word also appears in an alphabetical list in a frame in the left margin. For instance, for "cert (n.)," you can see "cert" in the middle of a list stretching from "cerosin," "ceroso-," "cerote," etc., down to "certes," "certie," "certifiable." This is good for checking similar words or correcting your own spelling, and also simulates to a small extent the experience of being seduced by random words you might find while flipping through a dictionary.

But you can switch from "List by entry" to "List by date"; then, instead of seeing your word in alphabetical context, you can see it in chronological context, where each word is indexed by the earliest listed occurrence (over the entire entry). "Cert" (in the "dead cert" meaning) is listed as appearing in 1889, so the words in the left margin run from "1889 catalytical," "1889 cataphoresis," "1889 catatonia," etc., down to "1889 chemiluminescence," "1889 chicle," "1889 chit-chatty."

There are a lot of 1889 words, but you can also go up or down a screen to see alphabetically prior or subsequent words in the same year, and further to see words from different years. This is fun because, if you're interested in a period, seeing what words first showed up in the language in that period gives you a nice sense of what was going on at the time in society and culture.

For example, "lonely" was invented by Shakespeare, who used it in Coriolanus ("I go alone Like to a lonely Dragon, that his Fenne Makes fear'd, and talk'd of more then seene.") in 1607 — did you know that "Alpine," "archaeology," "birthplace," "bloodshot," "exasperated," "Machiavellianism," "maestro," and "procrastinator" also appeared (as far as the OED knows) in that year?

Now I know what you're thinking: "O.K., Volokh, enough with the 1889 and 1607, what are the earliest known English words?"

UPDATE: Pat at Stubborn Facts responds. Also, note a useful comment by David Leon Gil in the comments.

Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
what about "man"? is that in the laws or not?
7.12.2006 2:35pm
Crunchy Frog:
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7.12.2006 2:56pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
They've got "man" in its obsolete pronoun sense, meaning "one." You can see that in the "town" sentence above -- "Ȝif man in mannes tun ærest ȝeirneþ" means "If one into one's dwelling first runs." Also, they have it in its modern "man" sense; "Gif man frigne mannan of sleahþ" (c. 12) has both meanings -- "If one slays off a free man." Same with c. 24: "Gif man mannan ofslæhð," meaning "If one slays off a man." Also, there's "frigman" and "frigne man," meaning "freeman"/"free man."
7.12.2006 3:22pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
On that first sentence I discussed in the comment above: That first sentence could be read as "If one into [another] one's dwelling first runs," or alternatively as "If one into a man's dwelling first runs." So the second "man" could mean either "one" (i.e., "someone") or "man."
7.12.2006 4:04pm
David Leon Gil (mail):
I had actually never noticed the chronological ordering feature before!--such fun I'd been missing. Besides thanks for pointing this out, I have two somewhat substantive comments.

1. As I understand the matter, the New Edition is systematically abandoning the rather spurious and curious datings that the Second Edition provides. Because it's very hard to locate with any confidence the date of most Old English texts, in the New Edition quotations from those texts are typically attributed to, e.g., eOE or OE rather than a specific year. (See, e.g., the Mar. 2004 draft revision for "man, n.1".)

2. And a quibble. Just because the earliest attested quotation for "lonely" is from Shakespeare doesn't mean that Shakespeare invented the word. Any more than the Times invented "cert" because they're the earliest quote you provide for that word.

Indeed, I think it's near certain that the word antedates Shakespeare: The OED entry for "alonely, a. and adv." includes quotations dating to 1303 for the sense solely, and a quote from 1525 in the sense of solitary: "1525 LD. BERNERS Froissart II. cxx. 344 And so rode but alonely with his page." The OED informs us that "alonely" was aphetized to "lonely" in northern English; i.e., the initial vowel lost because unaccented. The late attestation of "lonely" compared to "alonely" likely, then, just reflects the relatively slower pace of spelling change.
7.12.2006 4:23pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
David Gil -- thanks for the informative comments. As to 1, I think OE and eOE is a great solution to the dating problem, and I'm glad they're doing it. As to 2, I realize finding Shakespeare as the first source doesn't mean he invented it; I made the claim primarily because my college Shakespeare professor made it, and the OED just confirmed it. But my college professor may have just been mistaken. (I couldn't find the reference to "alonely" being aphetized to "lonely" in northern English in the entry for "alonely.")
7.12.2006 4:36pm
David Leon Gil (mail):
Sorry, I should have noted that the aphetized comment is in the etymology (rather than the definitions) of "alonely":

[phraseol. comb. of ALL adv. ‘wholly, quite, altogether’ + ONLY; hence, orig., emphatic form of only. Not in use bef. end of 13th c., OE. using the simple ánlíc, (only). Obs. in 17th c., though used by Lamb. Aphetized in north. dial. to LONELY.]

And, alas, I think that--even though you don't--many (including, in fact, my college Shakespeare professor, and, I think, most English professors without linguistic background) do mistakenly assume that the author of the first attested use of some is that word's inventor. Which leads to many spurious claims about Shakespeare's inventiveness being passed along.
7.12.2006 5:06pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
That's going to be a fun toy to play with, thanks for the link!

But I think you are too quick to dismiss the word "alder" based on obsolescence (I won't tread into the quagmire bog of Beowulf dating). As I note here, it is still quite commonly used, with the same general meaning of elder or ruler, as a component of the compound "alderman".
7.12.2006 5:08pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
So why wouldn't man also be listed as one of the first words attested?
7.12.2006 5:53pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
PatHMV: I agree, and the OED of course lists "alderman" as a current word. I'm just making a claim about "alder" as such, and your post doesn't seem to disagree.

Pyrrhus: Because, as my post notes, the OED is highly selective about what it quotes from Ethelbert. But, if David Gil is right, this will be fixed by listing a lot of sources as "Old English" or "early Old English" instead of giving a precise year, which is sensible.
7.12.2006 7:38pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I've added an update.
7.12.2006 7:41pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I certainly agree that "alder" is no longer used by itself. I would point out that "alderman" itself has a quite ancient history as well. From the laws of Ini, King of the West Saxons, circa 690AD:
Cap. 36. Let him who takes a thief, or to whom one taken is given, and he then lets conceals the theft, pay for the thief according to his 'wer.' If he be an ealdorman, let him forfeit his shire, unless the king is willing to be merciful to him.

I confess I've never looked at any of the ancient English laws. I'm more familiar with the Codes of Hammurabi (really ancient) and Justinian than I am with Æthelberht... but then I'm a Louisiana lawyer, so I've never had to figure out "fee simple" and other such nonsense. ;)
7.12.2006 8:13pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Also down that tangent, a more or less translated full version of "THE DOOMS WHICH KING AETHELBERHT ESTABLISHED IN THE DAYS OF AUGUSTINE" is available in Our Legal Heritage, 4th ed., by S.A. Reilly of Chicago, Illinois (available as a free e-book thanks to Project Gutenberg). It's at the end of chapter one. They look fascinating, I'll have to do a post on them...
7.12.2006 8:21pm
David Leon Gil (mail):
1. A little more on lonely. A quick search of EEBO reveals two antedatings:

1590 Philip Sidney The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia f. 115v, [H]er coming to that lonely place (where she had no body but her parents) [had bred] a willingnes of conversatio . . . .
1595 Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke tr. R. Garnier The tragedie of Antonie f. G3r, By fields whereon the lonely Ghosts do treade . . . .

(The authors Philip and Mary here were brother and sister. Shakespeare's First Folio is dedicated to Mary's son William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. And I have heard it claimed that Philip's volume Arcadia, cited here, was a source for parts of Shakespeare's King Lear; but I'm uncertain how well-founded that claim is.)

2. And just to source my claim re dating policy, the Preface to the Third Edition notes:

Old English sources are dated as either ‘eOE’, ‘OE’, or ‘lOE’ (the first and last indicate ‘early’ and ‘late’ Old English); this is because much of the extant record of Old English appears in late manuscripts and it is not generally possible to guarantee that the particular word under review was not altered or added during the process of manuscript transmission.
7.13.2006 1:17pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
David Gil: You are the man.
7.13.2006 7:12pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
That's "man" in the sense of "man," not in the sense of "someone."
7.13.2006 7:12pm