Archive by Author | philipdurkin

Some great finds for the OED

uncaple – eye-skip, or a new form for the OED?

@parsfan was transcribing a letter from 1715, summing it up as “Basically, a complaint by some Warwick Innkeepers that they haven’t been paid for four months for quartering a troop of Dragoons”. There’s an unusual spelling “uncaple”, which appears at the beginning of the second line here:

three lines of text from a letter

Lines from letter in the Collection of Items relating to the Borough and Parish of Warwick, England, Folger MS: X.d.2 (100)

The word clearly means “uncapable”, and at first glance, this perhaps looks like a case of eye-skip, someone skipping ahead to the second “a”, which seems especially plausible as the letter gives the impression of being written in something of a hurry. However, a bit of further sleuthing shows “uncaple” also occurs in a 1629 quotation already in the OED, and there appear to be a number of further examples in the Early English Books Online database of digitized early modern printed books. So, although a lot more research work will be needed, it looks like we may well be onto an addition for the OED here.

An image of the full letter is below, and more information about this manuscript from the Folger catalog may be found here.

Full image of letter

Full image of letter, MS Folger: X.d.2 (100)

the tolfte of November

@mutabilitie spotted this interesting spelling of twelfth as tolfte:

lines from a letter

Lines from a letter in the Papers of the Bagot Family of Blithfield, Staffordshire, Folger MS: L.a.586

It comes from a letter from Francis Kynnersley, written in Badger in Shropshire, to Walter Bagot, circa 1620. We’ve not yet found other Early Modern examples of this spelling, but the Linguistic Atlas of Later Medieval English records some similar forms – and, very interestingly, they come from Shropshire, just like this letter. So often you find that when you start to put together isolated bits of information like this, an interesting pattern begins to emerge, and we learn a bit more about the history of English.

Again, an image of the full letter page is below, and information from the catalog record may be accessed here.

Full image of letter

Full image of letter, Folger MS: L.a.586

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

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

Access to the OED for Shakespeare’s World participants: an important update!

A number of postings on Talk have highlighted exciting finds for the Oxford English Dictionary coming out of the work of Shakespeare’s World participants. Look for blog posts here in the coming weeks on some of these discoveries and how they are informing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

We are thrilled to have this information for the OED, and intend to make full use of it in revising the dictionary (for more information about the OED and its revision programme see the earlier posting on taffety tarts).

However, we’ve been only too aware that not all participants have access to the online OED (although many people already do, typically through libraries or academic institutions).

We are therefore delighted to announce that, as of now, OUP will be happy to give free access to the OED for any Shakespeare’s World participants who have made more than 500 transcriptions (of up to a line each) in the past year. If you fall in that category and would like access to the OED to help you transcribe and explore these fascinating documents, then please contact us with the subject line ‘Shakespeare’s World OED access’.

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

Some more finds for the OED: portugall farts, fussie smalligs (again), and receitpts


This recipe “To make mackroones or portugall farts”, not surprisingly, raised some eyebrows after it was spotted by @kodemonkey:



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The mackroones are macaroons, and the spelling mackroon is already recorded by the OED for the 1600s and 1700s. The portugall farts appear to be the same thing as the “farts of Portugal” which the OED records for the sixteenth century as a specific culinary use of fart (in its usual, embarrassing meaning):

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The parallel that French pet (also literally ‘fart’) is similarly used to denote a doughnut or similar air-filled treat suggests strongly that we are indeed looking at a humorous use of the familiar word, giving an insight into the different ideas of decorum – and indeed of what might or might not put someone off eating a pastry – of another age. In fact French dictionaries record (in medieval French spelling) pets d’Espaigne, literally ‘Spanish farts’, dating back as far as 1393. The keen eyes of the Zooniverse community have given us an important pointer for expanding the coverage of this item for OED and a stimulus to include this word soon in OED’s rolling revision programme. (The current version of fart in the dictionary dates back in essentials to 1895 – revising the OED is a Sisyphean task!)

It’s also worth highlighting a few of the less immediately arresting things coming out of Shakespeare’s World that nonetheless get lexicographers and linguists excited. @LWSmith’s blog post On Close Reading and Teamwork drew attention to fussy smalligs probably meaning ‘fuzzy smallage’, as originally spotted by @parsfan. As Laura points out, the spelling fussy for fuzzy isn’t yet in the OED. But looking again at Gervase Markham, OED’s current earliest source for fuzzy (spelt fuzzie) in the very early 1600s, shows that he also wrote about a soft fussie and vnwholsome mosse and about clay of a fussie temper (in contrast to stiffe blacke clay), all of which suggests that another close look at the early history of fuzzy is thoroughly merited. Again, Zooniverse researchers and volunteers have pointed the way for what will be important revision work for the OED.

Finally, @jules spotted the spelling receitpte in a recipe heading:

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The word receipt was originally spelt with no p, spellings such as receit being common in early use. It comes ultimately from Latin recepta, but was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French, in which it had forms such as recette or (in Anglo-Norman) receite. From an early date spellings with a (silent) ‘etymological’ p are found in Anglo-Norman and Middle French and also in English, reflecting awareness of the word’s Latin origin. The hitherto unrecorded spelling receitpte spotted by @jules, with an additional t in front of the p, is really illuminating. This writer clearly knows that the word is written with a silent p. Perhaps receitpte is the result of getting so far in writing the word, remembering about the silent p, and leaving the first t as an uncorrected error. Or perhaps (I suspect more likely) this is a belt-and-braces way of signalling loudly and clearly “you spell this word with a p but pronounce it as though it just had a t”. It would be great to know whether any other –tpt– spellings are lurking in these manuscripts. Transcriptions on Shakespeare’s World, and especially lively discussions on Talk, are just the way we’re going to find that out.

Our First Discovery! And a brief history of the Oxford English Dictionary

Everyone at the OED is really excited about Shakespeare’s World and the potential that the project offers for making new discoveries about Early Modern English, i.e. the English of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary is a very large historical dictionary of the English language. The ‘historical’ part of this means that it documents words, meanings, and spellings from the past as well as the present, and it puts all of this information together in a structure that presents the historical development of each word. The dictionary presents a selection of its most important evidence for the past and present use of each word in the form of dated quotations: more than 3 million of these appear in the full dictionary. But the full resources that the dictionary draws on are far larger: a key role for dictionary editors is identifying instances of word usage that help explain and illuminate the milestones in the history of each word.

The first edition of the OED was published between 1884 and 1928. The existing text was substantially supplemented during the twentieth century, but it became increasingly clear to the dictionary’s editors and users that the existing text of the dictionary was in need of review, to ensure that each word history was brought up to date with all of the relevant information available today, and also that definitions and other explanations were presented in language that works for today’s readers. All parts of the dictionary—including definitions, dates of use, quotation evidence, spelling history, etymologies, and pronunciations—are now being reviewed and revised. Since 2000 the results of this revision work have been published in quarterly releases, which now cover more than a third of the original text of the dictionary. The scope for revision does not stop here: new evidence continues to come to light even for words that have already been revised, and OED’s editors endeavour to act on the most significant new evidence with rolling updates to the text. For much more information about the OED and its history see

At all points in the OED’s history, contributions from the reading public (aka crowdsourcing) have been welcomed with open arms, partly because lexicographers love to have some contact with their readers, but also because experience shows that such contributions can often make all the difference in opening up new perspectives on a word’s history.

Excitingly, we already have at least one example of this from Shakespeare’s World. Earlier this week, a number of project participants, including @kodemunkey, @jules and researchers @S_Powell, @LWSmith and @VVH discussed this recipe “To make the best Taffetye Tarts”:

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A bit of eagle-eyed research identified Taffytie as very likely a variant form of taffeta, i.e. the name of the fabric. The OED entry for taffeta (which is one of those not yet substantially revised since it was published in the first edition, in 1910) records use from the eighteenth century in the name of a rather different sweet dish:

The entry also records various figurative uses of the fabric name from Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

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The meanings ‘dainty’ and ‘delicate’ seem very plausible starting points for the name of a dessert dish—and the 1720 quotation refers to taffity-tarts, which the original editors of the OED had maybe taken to be a one-off reference to ‘dainty tarts’, but which it now appears more likely was the established name of a dish. Another project participant has already drawn attention to another recipe for taffity tartes, so hopefully we will soon have a healthy file of examples. Plus, the exact spelling taffytie is not yet recorded in the OED (although taffitie and taffity are), giving us further valuable data about genuine language use in Early Modern English.

The sources featured in Shakespeare’s World are particularly interesting and valuable for OED lexicographers. We have relatively easy access to a good deal of printed material from this period, now increasingly searchable in electronic collections. It is much harder for OED’s lexicographers to survey patterns of use in manuscript sources from this period, which often differ in interesting ways from printed sources—this can be in small features like spelling (as for instance taffytie), as well as in reflecting aspects of life (such as culinary recipes) that are relatively under-represented in the printed sources, or only appear there in a rather different light. This project therefore offers a new way in to some material that has previously been underexploited in tracing the history of English.

Help us find new words, variants, older spellings and more at Shakespeare’s World, and get in touch on Talk to share ideas, raise questions and keep your finger on the pulse of the early modern world!

-By Philip Durkin @philipdurkin of the OED

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