A huge find for the OED – a startling antedating for partner meaning ‘spouse’

By @philipdurkin

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.


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

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 www.oed.com

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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