“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:
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
When the Oxford English Dictionary got involved with Shakespeare’s World, we knew that these documents would provide invaluable data on Early Modern English in everyday, non-print use. What we hoped, but couldn’t be so sure of, was that this project would also produce some changes to the historical record of English so startling and immediately relatable that they can help explain to the general public why it’s worth doing this sort of painstaking work. Early in the project we found an example of the phrase white lie that pushed the record back by nearly two centuries, from 1741 to 1567. But we suspected that better was still to come, and now we’ve found it, with really breath-taking earlier evidence of partner in the sense of ‘spouse’.
When we revised the entry for partner for OED in 2005, we searched hard for earlier evidence of all eleven of its separately defined senses. One sense that couldn’t help but attract a lot of attention was the one that OED defines as (sense 5a):
A person who is linked by marriage to another, a spouse; a member of a couple who live together or are habitual companions; a lover.
Especially in the UK, this use of the word has considerable currency, especially as a convenient means of referring to the ‘significant other’ in a person’s life without any particular implications as to legal marital status, sexuality, etc. As OED notes, it is:
Now increasingly used in legal and contractual contexts to refer to a member of a couple in a long-standing relationship of any kind, so as to give equal recognition to marriage, cohabitation, same-sex relationships, etc.
Where does Shakespeare’s World fit into this picture? Back in 2005, the earliest example of this sense that OED’s researchers could find was from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book X, line 128):
I stand Before my Judge, either to undergoe My self the total Crime, or to accuse My other self, the partner of my life.
Not only is this example from a core canonical literary author, it is also essentially self-explaining, as part of the longer phrase “the partner of my life”. Other early examples are similar, like this one from Tobias Smollett’s tragedy The Regicide in 1749:
What means the gentle Part’ner of my Heart?
But in 2017, Shakespeare’s World volunteers started to report that they were finding partner meaning ‘spouse’ in correspondence from the late 1500s and early 1600s. I must confess that my initial response was scepticism. I went back and searched text collections such as Early English Books Online again: there were one or two uses in phrases that could (maybe just) be seen as precursors of the use in Milton, but nothing to really suggest that partner had developed the meaning ‘spouse’ by this date. But Shakespeare’s World was definitely turning up the goods, like this example from 1577:
If by death my partner should lose her partner I shall prouide for her out of that litle a competent partners part. as touchinge my partners apparell I haue sent vnto her the graue determynacion of a taylor.
Pulling together the examples showed something else: there were lots of instances, but they were all from the correspondence of two people, Richard Broughton and his wife Anne (née Bagot), writing to members of their close family circle (especially Anne’s father, Richard Bagot). In fact, they began using partner in reference to one another before their wedding. Here is another example, from one of Anne’s letters:
My Euer good brother mr. Higines opinione was, that my Partner mvst bee att the bathe before maye, hie is gone thether & on satter day I shall heare Doctar shurwoodes opinione.
So what is going on here? Perhaps partner was in widespread use meaning ‘spouse’ in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and we just need more access to personal letters, diaries, etc. to give us more examples. But, if so, it’s surprising that we have no other examples from any other source – including other documents that have been transcribed on Shakespeare’s World, as well as other collections of correspondence from the period. Perhaps instead this was something that Richard and Anne Broughton innovated for themselves – it’s not so very surprising a development from the other earlier meanings of partner, and we can say fairly confidently that it was available as part of the potential meaning of the word. And, although Richard Broughton appears a rather unattractive figure from the historical record of his legal and business activities, the picture that emerges from the letters is of two people with a (linguistically) playful side, with anagrammatic respellings such as “Agant Bona” for Anna Bagot, and nicknames for various family members.
For the present, examples of use by both Richard and Anne have been added to the OED entry, with a note:
Early usage history: Quots. 1577 and 1603 come from the correspondence of Richard and Anne Broughton (née Bagot), who use the term repeatedly in referring to one another in correspondence with other members of their family circle. Such use has not been found elsewhere at this date.
But perhaps new evidence can change that picture again. If you find such evidence, please let us know – we’ll be as thrilled as you.
In the inaugural post of the series, Heather Wolfe made a passionate case for why we need to transcribe and study the tens of thousands of early modern letters in our libraries and archives. Today, we turn to the wonderfully rich world of early modern recipes. Recipe books, like letters, are common finds in archives and the Folger Shakespeare Library has an exceptional collection of these fascinating texts.
In Shakespeare’s England, many households had a notebook in which they jotted down culinary, medical and household recipes. These short texts gave readers instructions to make a wide range of products from roasted pike to cough medicines and sustaining broths to ways of keeping linen white. The miscellaneous nature of these texts reflects the multifaceted role taken on by householders and household managers in the period. The close juxtaposition of culinary and medical recipes, reminds us of the close association between food and medicine; for example, you might see a remedy for a fever listed next to a recipe for a pie. This is due not only to the holistic nature of humoural medicine, but also to the crossovers between the spaces, technologies and materials used to produce food and medicines.
Recipes to make a range of foodstuffs—cheesecakes, pies, stews—give us an idea of the kinds of foods served on early modern tables. By transcribing a large number of recipes, we can track food fads and fashions, continuity and changes in the country’s food staples and much much more. After all, with Christmas coming up, you might be interested in learn that turkey (roasted, in pies or as turkey hash) also graced tables around this time in seventeenth-century England. Recipe books also open a window into other “housewifely” tasks such as the making of different kinds of cheese and the brewing of beer and ale. As many of the recipe books that we’re transcribing in Shakespeare’s World were created by well-off gentlewomen, one might imagine that these tasks were done by teams of housekeepers, dairy maids and cooks rather than a lone housewife in the kitchen.
As you work through our recipe selections, you’ll encounter scores of health-orientated recipes. Cough syrups, medicines for the jaundice or remedies for the ague are dotted throughout the recipe archive. These recipes reveal the everyday anxieties and health-concerns of men and women living in early modern England and the many ways in which they tried to ease their symptoms. While there were various options for medical care in the period, family and friends often served as the “first resort” for patients seeking to alleviate their ailments or sicknesses. Then, as now, men and women tended to mix commercially available medicines with those made in the home. After all, whom among us has not mixed an over-the-counter pain-killer with a home-brewed honey, lemon and ginger “tea” during bouts of cold and flu?
You might wonder from where householders gathered all this medical and culinary information. The answer here is, as always, a complex one. Much like how we might build up our own “family cookbook”, householders in the early modern period relied on their networks of family, friends and neighbours, contemporary printed books and encounters with experts—medical practitioners, farriers, tavern maids—to fill their recipe books. After all, who would better know how to keep bottles sweet smelling than someone who works in the pub?
Interested and would like to learn more?
- Here is my feature story on recipes in early modern households.
- The Recipes Project is a collaborative research network exploring histories of pre-modern recipes.
- EMROC is a research-led teaching experiment where students work to create transcriptions and a database of early modern English recipe books.
- For more on food in the period, see, for example, Joan Thirsk’s Food in Early Modern England (London, 2007).
- A wonderful introductory text to medicine in early modern England is Andrew Wear’s Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
All examples in this post are taken from the recipe book of Margaret Baker which was compiled around 1675 (Folger MS v.a. 619, fols. 81v-82r, 79r and 54v.) The manuscript is available in entirety here and is included in Shakespeare’s World.
By Elaine Leong @elaineleong