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Prospecting for Antedates

jb_reform_fortyniners_1_eRemember 1849? Those were the great days of the California Gold Rush. Hundreds of thousands dropped everything to grab gold from the foothills near Sutter’s Fort. In that heady time, you didn’t need lots of equipment—perhaps just a pan to sift riverbed gravel for nuggets.

Well, it’s 1849 all over again. Not in gold mining, which now generally requires sophisticated technology, but in etymology, the study of word origins. Vast new fields of data have been opened and made accessible, so it’s easier than ever to find an earlier instance of a word or phrase not yet recorded in any dictionary.

Last week I gave an example of antedating, the Yale librarian Fred Shapiro’s discovery of an 1886 hot dog in a Nashville newspaper, some six years earlier than any previously discovered use of that now-familiar name for a sausage in a bun.

Years ago, before the Internet, that kind of discovery would have been next to impossible. In the 20th century, to find a word in an old newspaper you’d have to have a physical copy—a disintegrating bound volume or perhaps microfilm. And you’d have to read every word, issue after issue, hunting for a needle in a haystack.

Amazingly, some scholars succeeded in doing that. The great exemplar was Allen Walker Read (1906-2002) of Columbia University, who spent a lifetime reading early American periodicals, most notably to pinpoint the exact origin of OK in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839. He published his findings on OK with hundreds of relevant citations in the 1960s, long before any digital archives.

But even he would have been unlikely to find the 1886 instance of hot dog. Who would have thought to look for it in Nashville?

Well, to make a long story short, nobody. That’s the virtue of present-day prospecting for antedates. You can go not just anywhere but everywhere with a click of the mouse.

Shapiro found the Nashville hot dog by searching the online database ProQuest Historical Newspapers. It includes 20 American newspapers, ranging from the familiar New York Times to newspapers in Arizona, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and of course Nashville. But there are many other digital collections, such as 19th Century U.S. Newspapers (with 500 titles). Some of the databases require you to pay for subscriptions (or go to libraries that subscribe), but others, like Making of America, are free. Google Books and Google Newspapers, too, are free.

Your equipment for prospecting requires only 1) access to the online Oxford English Dictionary so that you can see the currently known earliest date; 2) access to historical databases; and 3) access to ADS-L, the discussion list of the American Dialect Society, where prospectors announce and discuss their findings.

ADS-L is free, and so is membership on the list. You can sign up and join the conversation, or be an onlooker. Most important, you can search more than a decade’s worth of posts to see when a word has been discussed.

This month alone on ADS-L, empathy has been antedated to 1895 in the Philosophical Review, guard in basketball to 1892 in Triangle (the Springfield College newspaper), persnickety to 1885 in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, gin rummy to 1937 in The Plain Dealer, of Cleveland, and drone to 1946 in Popular Science Monthly.

Eventually many of these citations will be picked up by the Oxford English Dictionary. You don’t get credit for them in the OED, but you can have the satisfaction of having outdone the professionals. And 15 minutes of fame on ADS-L. Give it a try!

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