It’s an enjoyable pastime, and it doesn’t do any harm. I’m referring to my continuing attempt to predate the Oxford English Dictionary: that is, find examples of words being used before the OED‘s first citation. For word nerds like me, it’s a little like a birder being able to add a corn crake to his or her life list.
I have a handful of predates on my own list, though the most recent one didn’t last very long. The term was the British expression bits and bobs, which I wrote about on my Not One-Off Britishisms blog. The first OED citation is an 1896 book. However, I found in the Google Books database a use from two years before that, in the Scottish writer John Davidson’s novel Baptist Lake: “For an hour and more, Mrs. Tiplady entertained Salerne with gossip — light, if a little muddy, like the froth of porter — with bits and bobs of music-hall songs and step-dances, and with caresses brief and birdlike.”
I tweeted out my find two days ago. This morning, I checked Twitter and found a message from the OED‘s account:
It was nice while it lasted.
Then there was the time I thought a had a predate but was fooled by a misleading publication date provided by Google Books. And the several occasions when I claimed in print to have found the first use of a word or term but was swiftly (and politely) predated by Richard Bleiler, a humanities librarian at the University of Connecticut. In the light of such experiences, I present the following with as much humility as I can muster.
The term in question is bad actor, defined by the OED as a U.S. designation for “a person who misbehaves or makes trouble.” It was notably used this month by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, in reference to the fired FBI official Andrew McCabe: “It is well documented that he has had some very troubling behavior and by most accounts a bad actor.” But it’s all over the place. I set up a Google Alert for the phrase and get a daily report of the times it’s been used on the web, usually a half dozen or more. Here’s part of the Alert from a couple of days ago:
The first item refers to a Montana law, dating from 1989, that, according to the Associated Press, “blocks individuals and companies who don’t clean or pay for the cleanup of old mines from starting new ones.” Also in the legal realm, in 2013 the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a “bad actor” rule that — in the words of the FundAmerica website —"prohibits a company from raising capital if the issuer or any associated person has, among other things, been convicted of, or is subject to judicial or regulatory sanctions for, certain violations of law.”
So where does “bad actor” come from? The first thing to note is that it uses a meaning of “actor” that predates that of theatrical performer, the more common one today. The OED‘s first definition for “actor,” with citations dating to 1325, is a “person who instigates or is involved in a legal action.” The meaning “a thing which or person who performs or takes part in an action” appears a century later, and that of a stage performer not until 1566.
The OED‘s first citation for bad actor is from a 1901 Ohio newspaper. That’s bettered by Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which has a quote from a chapter called “Life in a New York Opium Den” in an 1886 book, Professional Criminals in America: “The people who frequent these places are, with very few exceptions, thieves, sharpers, and sporting men, and a few bad actors.” Green’s also notes that “bad actor” has been used to signify “a vicious or unbroken horse"; the initial cite for that meaning is 1905.
I believe I have some predates — and by the way, this is not an easy phrase to search for, as most of the hits in every era refer to unskilled or hammy performers. Regarding refractory horses, this is from The New York Times, 1888: “Banero, like George Angus, is a notoriously bad actor at the post.” And on the general bad-guy sense, in 1882 the Times published an article (complete with dialect) about the arrest of two burglars, ages 6 and 8.
Just to make sure, I checked my findings with the intrepid Richard Bleiler. He looked into the matter and, not surprisingly, found what appear to be predates of my predates. He wrote me that he spotted the phrase in “a now pretty much forgotten comic novel, a parody of the Gothic first published in 1817,” Louis-François-Marie Bellin de La Liborlière’s The Hero, or the Adventures of a Night; a Romance. The book was published in London and reprinted in the United States the following year.
“Lord Chatham” presumably refers to William Pitt the Elder, who, according to Wikipedia, “was out of power for most of his career and became well known for his attacks on the government, such as those on Walpole’s corruption in the 1730s, Hanoverian subsidies in the 1740s, peace with France in the 1760s, and the uncompromising policy towards the American colonies in the 1770s.” As far as I can tell, James Kiston is a character in the novel.
Given the gap in time and social register between this and the 1882 New York Times use, I am inclined to think that in 1817, bad actor was not yet established as a phrase, but that the translator was merely using, and modifying, actor in the “person who performs or takes part in an action” sense. However, what’s fair is fair, and I grant Richard the spotting of the first bad actor in the human sense. I’m claiming the horse meaning, however. For as long as it lasts.