Shakespeare’s World and updating the OED: a splendid antedating of “white lie”

line of text from the image of a letter

text from Folger Manuscript L.a.2, a letter in the Bagot Family Papers

“Antedatings” for the Oxford English Dictionary are always exciting, showing that a word or meaning has been around for longer than previously thought. Sometimes, though, they just take your breath away. For instance, the OED’s editors recently prepared a new version of WHITE and its various compounds and derivatives. This involved, among other things, carefully combing through all of OED’s existing quotation files, and numerous online databases of historical linguistic evidence. In this process the earliest example we found of white lie (“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings”) was from 1741. Imagine, then, our surprise and delight (and yes, it is delight, rather than lexicographical sour grapes!) when keen-eyed Shakespeare’s World participant mutabilitie found this in a letter from 1567:

image of letter

Letter from Ralph Adderley I to Sir Nicholas Bagnal, marshal (of army) in Ireland, 1567, Papers of the Bagot Family of Blithfield, Staffordshire (Folger MS L.a.2)

Lines 8/9 give us “Albeit I do assure you he is vnsusspected of / any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye)”, pushing “white lie” back nearly two centuries earlier than we previously suspected.

An obvious question is why we haven’t added this to the OED the day that @mutabilitie spotted it. In this instance, we’ll need to do a bit more work on this manuscript letter, to be sure of how we want to cite it, and especially date it, in the OED – and we very much hope that the experts at the Folger will be able to cast an eye over that as well.

In other cases, the work involved for the OED will be more extensive, and take longer. The task of revising an OED entry is complex, and typically involves a number of different specialists – for instance, researchers checking numerous data collections for examples of the word (especially ones that are earlier or later, or point to different meanings or constructions); expert definers, assessing how the meaning is described; specialists compiling data on the typical spellings a word has shown through its history; etymologists, tracing how the word has been formed, where it has come from, and how it has been influenced by other languages; bibliographers, scrutinizing how examples are cited and dated and ensuring that the cited text is accurate – and this is before we take account of areas that typically impinge less on the Shakespeare’s World data, such as pronunciations, or definitions of scientific vocabulary. Coordinating all of this work involves an intricate sequence of inter-connected tasks, and inevitably takes time – particularly when your wordlist runs to over a quarter of a million words. That’s why some of the Shakespeare’s World material that will ultimately have a big impact on OED entries will get an enthusiastic “thank you” from OED editors but may not show up in the published dictionary text until it can be incorporated as part of a full revision of the dictionary entry where it belongs. This is probably going to prove the case with the discoveries about taffety tarts and farts of Portugal in two earlier posts: the entries for both taffeta and fart are due for full revision for the OED at some point in the not too far distant future, which will enable us to take full account of how this new information helps transform our understanding of the history of these words.

by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

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