When American Words Invaded the Greatest English Dictionary

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most people think of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary as a quintessentially British production, but if you pore carefully over the first edition, compiled between 1858 and 1928, you will find thousands of American words.

There are familiar words describing nature particular to the U.S., like prairieskunkcoyote and chipmunk, but also more recondite ones, like catawba (a species of grape and type of sparkling wine), catawampous (fierce, destructive) and cottondom (the region in which cotton is grown). Today, Americanisms are easy for modern lexicographers to find because of the internet and access to large data sets. But all of the American words in that first edition found their way to Oxford in an age when communication across the Atlantic was far more difficult.

The OED was one of the world’s first crowdsourced projects—the Wikipedia of the 19th century—in which people around the English-speaking world were invited to read their country’s books and submit words for consideration on 4-by-6-inch slips of paper. Until recently, it wasn’t known how many people responded, exactly who they were or how they helped. But in 2014, several years after working as an editor on the OED, I was revisiting a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement where the dictionary’s archive is stored, and I came across a dusty box.

Inside the box was a small black book tied with cream-colored ribbon. On its pages was the immaculate handwriting of James Murray, the OED’s longest-serving editor. It was his 150-year-old address book recording the names and addresses of people who contributed to the largest English dictionary ever written.

There were six address books in all from that era, and for the past eight years I have researched the people listed inside. Three thousand or so in total, they were a vivid and eccentric bunch. Most were not the scholarly elite you might expect. The top four contributors globally, one of whom sent in 165,061 slips, were all connected with psychiatric hospitals (or “lunatic asylums” as they were called at the time); three were inmates and one was a chief administrator. There were three murderers and the owner of the world’s largest collection of pornography who, yes, sent in sex words, especially related to bondage and flagellation. 

You can’t go a page or two in Murray’s address books without seeing a name that he had underlined in thick red pencil. These are the Americans: politicians, soldiers, librarians, homemakers, booksellers, lawyers, coin collectors and pharmacists. They ranged from luminaries like Noah Thomas Porter, who edited Webster’s Dictionary and became president of Yale University, to unknowns such as 21-year-old Carille Winthrop Atwood, who loved the classical world and lived in a large house with several other young women in a fashionable area of San Francisco. The most prolific American contributor was Job Pierson, a clergyman from Ionia, Mich., who owned the state’s largest private library and sent in 43,055 slips featuring words from poetry, drama and religion. 

Murray marked Americanism with a “U.S” label, including casket (coffin),  comforter (eiderdown), baggage (luggage), biscuit (scone) and faucet (tap). He was often at pains to add details: For pecan tree, he included that it was “common in [the] Ohio and Mississippi valleys.” He noted that candy, not quite an Americanism, was “in [the] U.S. used more widely than in Great Britain, including toffy and the like.”

. . . .

Some American contributors involved in certain causes sought to make sure that their associated words got into the dictionary, like Anna Thorpe Wetherill, an anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia, who hid escaped slaves at her home. Her contributions included abhorrent and abolition.

Others turned to their hobbies. Noteworthy Philadelphian Henry Phillips, Jr., an antiquarian and pioneer of the new language Esperanto, ensured that the dictionary had a generous coverage of words relating to coins and numismatics: electrum (coins made of an alloy of gold and silver with traces of copper) and gun money (money coined from the metal of old guns). 

Francis Atkins, a medical doctor at a military base in New Mexico, read books relating to Native American cultures and sent in sweat-house (a hut in which hot air or vapor baths are taken) and squash (the vegetable), a word borrowed from the Narragansett asquutasquash. He also contributed ranching words: rutting season (mating season), pronghorn (an antelope) and bison (a wild ox).

Others had their favorite authors. Anna Wyckoff Olcott, one of 27 contributors from New York City (she lived on West 13th Street in Manhattan), took responsibility for providing entries from the works of Louisa May Alcott. Those included the term deaconed, from “Little Women,” defined in the OED as “U.S. slang” meaning the practice of packing fruit with the finest specimens on top. (“The blanc-mange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skilfully ‘deaconed.’”)

In Boston, Nathan Matthews advised the OED for six years before becoming the city’s mayor and the person who spearheaded Boston’s subway system, the first in the U.S. But it was his brother, the historian and etymologist Albert Matthews, who was the second-highest ranking American contributor, sending in 30,480 slips from his reading of American historical sources including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving. 

Albert Matthews in particular enabled the OED to include words that no Brit would have ever have heard or needed to use. He sent in stockadedwhitefish and a rare American use of suck, meaning “the place at which a body of water moves in such a way as to suck objects into its vortex.” His reading of Daniel Denton’s “A Brief Description of New York” (1670) provided evidence for persimmonpossum, raccoon skinpowwow (spelled at the time “pawow”) and the first time that huckleberry ever appeared in print: “The fruits Natural to the Island are Mulberries, Posimons, Grapes great and small, Huckelberries.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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