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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

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:



Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 12.33.49

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):

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 12.39.13

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.

On Close Reading and Teamwork


Pharmaceutical and Cookery Recipes, ca. 1675 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.21), 261.

The tale of Bunchfussy begins with @parsfan’s comment:

‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’

That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst, 1583. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (first with EMROC and now with Shakespeare’s World), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.

Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.

Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.

@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.

The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?

Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.


Apium Graveolens. Otto Wilhelm Thome, Flora von Deutschland (1885). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.

Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.

*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.

ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a pson euer spelle yt yt waye?

The title question above might be more recognizable as the following in a semi-diplomatic version:
ffor Heavens sak, whi wolde a person euer spelle yt that waye?
Or, in a modernized version: For Heaven’s sake, why would a person ever spell it that way?

If you spend any time reading (or trying to read) early modern manuscripts, you will quickly discover that it is best to forget much of what you have learned about modern spelling. The standard forms and rules for English in the twenty-first century—such as they are—do not apply! Most early modern writers saw no need to follow a strict orthography, and little in the way of such a thing existed in any case (a push for standardization came later). This pitfall feature of sixteenth and seventeenth century English manuscripts confounds many transcribers today, at least at first. Admittedly, the randomness of the spelling in these texts takes some getting used to, but a freedom of thought and language shows in the way words were put to paper in these manuscripts. This laissez-faire quality conveys a wonderful sense of the time as well as a certain beauty.

Aesthetics aside, the non-standardized spellings of words in these manuscripts may provide important nuggets of information for study. Along with identifying new word variants in the OED, tracking usage is useful for scholars in many ways as they research how language and thinking shifts over time, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of individual writers. A reflection of regional pronunciations is one factor to consider. For example, in the letter below, one can see the word “shute” on the ninth line as a form of “suit,” perhaps suggesting a dialect in play.

Image of letter: L.a.176

Folger MS L.a.176 (Letter in Bagot Family Papers)

Such spellings do present headaches, but a transcriber can often sound out a word from the letters she/he sees on the manuscript page. Of course, the letters should always be entered as they appear (with expansions for common abbreviations), but understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence is also important for the transcriber. Making your own modernized version, even if it’s only in your head, can help as you work through a page.

See this great discussion thread about the different values of original and modernized transcriptions on Talk. Sharing your transcriptions or modernized versions of them on Talk is often helpful to other transcribers (and yourself). It’s also an excellent way to get a discussion going and spark ideas.

Another key factor to keep in mind about early modern spelling is that a large number of new words were entering the English language during this period, either absorbed from other languages or simply created. Shakespeare is credited with generating several hundreds of neologisms in his works, and he spelled them as he pleased. Other well-known (or lesser-known) writers did the same. Their printed publications are the evidence. Those who study manuscripts wonder if at least some of the presumed neologisms identified in print had actually already appeared in manuscripts. As transcription work continues in Shakespeare’s World and elsewhere, answers to such questions may come to light.

Finally, people have asked me about finding patterns in early modern spelling to make things easier or speed up the transcribing process, and I have heard various theories put forward. Clearly, as one sees how a scribe forms particular letters—some hands are quite distinct—that knowledge aids subsequent identifications. However, I caution transcribers about putting too much confidence in a supposed pattern. Writers often do not spell the same word in the same way even on the same page. Again, the best rule is to limit assumptions and transcribe letters as you see them. Easy shortcuts for early modern spelling do not really work, but here are a few specific points to keep in mind if the spelling of a word is giving you trouble:

  • the “v” and “u” letters are often used almost interchangeably, but the “v” is more common at the start of words even where one might expect a “u,” e.g., “vp”
  • the “u” and the “n” letters look the same; as do some “e” and “d” letters; context is often the only way to figure out which is right
  • the letter that looks like a “y” is sometimes a thorn (for “th“) but other times a “y” that serves as a vowel like the modern “i,” e.g., “ys” (“is”)
  • what one might consider extra letters (e.g., an “e” at the end of a word) commonly appear, but letters we expect might also be missing (e.g., “mony” for “money”)
  • words often break in unexpected places, either at line breaks or within lines; again, context will help you figure out the meaning, but transcribe the words as they appear
  • remember to check for abbreviated forms on the interface and in the Shakespeare’s World Guide and to expand such words with the tags provided
  • ask for help on Talk if you’re stuck

Early modern spelling is a massive topic, and this post just scratches the surface. Look for more in future posts and continuing discussions on Talk.

by Paul Dingman @pding001

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