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Around November and December the major dictionary publishers start presenting us with their annual choices for ‘word of the year’. These selections snappily capture the zeitgeist and for me they are often instructive as well, finally buttoning some definition to those newly heard terms that I myself haven’t quite yet fully grasped.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history and evolution of languages. And as interesting as it is to contemplate the entirely new (or indeed the old embellished with new meaning) it is equally astonishing to find out just how old some of the words we still use on a daily basis are.

To that end I love the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) endeavours to pin down the earliest recorded usages of the words and phrases that it defines to specific, dateable documents. This is by no means a trivial task, as the OED itself notes:

‘the process of adding any new word, or a new sense of an existing word, is long and painstaking, and depends on the accumulation of a large body of published (preferably printed) citations showing the word in actual use’.

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Frequently asked questions

There are sound reasons for the OED to prefer printed evidence where possible but given that the earliest printing presses only appeared in Europe around 1450 there are inevitably instances where hand-written documents have also been taken into account. An invaluable source of some of the oldest manuscripts to survive are of course the nation’s archival collections, and I was intrigued to see that the OED cites at least 1,600 evidential quotations taken from documents held by The National Archives.

But before I delve into the medieval I should point out that relatively modern documents from The National Archives also sometimes support the OED’s carefully chosen evidence. One that surprised me (although it becomes obvious once you read the entry) is the origin of the word ‘tank’ (the military vehicle). In a letter about so-called ‘Landships’ from naval architect/engineer Eustace d’Eyncourt in November 1915 (to be found among the Records of the Navy Board and the Board of Admiralty, catalogue ref: ADM 116/1339) there appears the following suggestion: ‘I propose to refer to the vessel as a ‘Water Carrier’ as a means of disguise.’ A ministerial reply the following month found in the same Admiralty file then officially stamps the coinage: ‘The provision of these machines shall be entrusted to a small Executive Supply Committee, which, for secrecy, shall be called the “Tank Supply Committee”.

On a similarly military theme, but predating the previous example by some 550 years, the Account of John de Sleford, clerk of the privy wardrobe at the Tower of London (King’s Remembrancer Exchequer records, catalogue ref: E101/395/1) provides the OED with the source for one of the earliest recorded mentions of the word ‘gun’. Among the various objects that John de Sleford itemises in a contemporaneous mix of Latin and English are: ‘ix. gunnes de cupro’ [9 guns made of copper].

Looking at medieval documents for evidence may seem to some like peering back to ‘olden times’ so it seems particularly fitting that a document at The National Archives dated 1401 (Miscellaneous Inquisitions from Records of the Chancery, catalogue ref: C 145/279/1) has been cited by the OED as one of the earliest recorded examples of that undeniably old word ‘olden’ (or ‘Oldyn’ as it’s spelled on that document).

One of the most popular series of records at The National Archives, certainly among family historians, are the will and probate documents held in PROB 11. And with more than 1.1 million examples spanning five centuries it’s little wonder that this series of wills also turns up several of the OED’s earliest known examples for words written in English; the objects that people wished to pass on after their death had, literally, to be spelled out!

The personal objects themselves can range enormously in value, from the exotic to the banal. An example of the former can be found in the will from October 1458 of Alicia Wetenhale, a widow (catalogue ref: PROB 11/4/266). Alicia is keen to pass on to her daughter her three silver cups with engravings of Morris dancing on them, and thereby, alongside the customary Latin phrasing of the period, she also passes on one of the earliest known English references to that particularly English pastime:

The Latin words ‘iij ciphos argenti sculptos cum moreys daunce’ in medieval script.
‘iij ciphos argenti sculptos cum moreys daunce’ (catalogue ref: PROB 11/4/266)
An extremely colourful painting shows Morris dancers heading down a street waving handkerchiefs in the air.
Wherever You Go: Morris men outside Thaxted Post Office, Essex, by Walter Hoyle (catalogue ref:
NSC 62/150)

A much more rudimentary vessel, a wooden dish, makes an appearance 30 years later in May 1488 in the will of Wyllyam Pyllule, a barber from London (catalogue ref: PROB 11/8/169). It looks like William’s Latin wasn’t quite up to scratch so his will is written in English and is now cited by the OED as one of the first known written examples of the word ‘dish’. Even better though is the fact that William wanted this legacy to be no ordinary wooden [treen] dish… he stipulated that it should come with a bonus!

A handwritten line from Wyllyam Pyllule's will.
‘and a new treen dyssh w[i]t[h] a pynte of ale therin’ (catalogue ref: PROB 11/8/169)

Just half-a-dozen years later, in November 1494, the OED has spotted that a certain John Isley also gave some thought to the objects that he wished to bequeath. One of them was probably intended for use in the kitchen and three, we’d like to think, were not! (‘the grete Cawdren … and iij [3] pyssing basons’.)

A thoughtful legacy? (catalogue ref: PROB 11/10/294)

The OED’s desire to record the earliest dateable evidence of the use of the English language can only be lauded. It’s a vast and never-ending task so if someone happens to uncover reliable new evidence for ‘antedatings’ then the OED are open to suggestions. I might already have found a couple of antedating possibilities nestled among the archives, in fact…

There’s an obsolete term ‘hill-digger’ which was once applied to someone who (illicitly) excavated ancient earthworks. The OED’s earliest known record of the word dates to 1521 but among The National Archives’ records of Chancery Pleadings I found a record (catalogue ref: C 1/66/305) where, according to the catalogue description, a certain John Baker of Harleston was accused of being ‘an hilledygger’ and finder of treasure. The record dates from between 1475–1485 and so it might push the known lexical evidence back by at least 35 years. The reported description alone wouldn’t suffice however – one would almost certainly need to provide the OED with a copy of the original document. Perhaps I should look into this… and possibly add one more piece of evidence to those already found by the OED among the records at The National Archives.

Incidentally, if you were interested in finding some of the same illustrations from The National Archives’ records that I did you would need to search the OED using the acronym ‘PRO’ for Public Record Office, The National Archives’ predecessor organisation before 2003. When I was doing this myself I noticed that the OED’s entry for the actual acronym ‘PRO’ cites an earliest dated example of usage from 1892. Given that the PRO was established by the Public Record Office Act of 1838, surely there must be documentary evidence somewhere in The National Archives itself showing ‘PRO’ being used at some point prior to 1892? In record series OBS 1, perhaps?

And I’m sure there are countless documents throughout the nation’s other archival collections just waiting to demonstrate an earlier existence of many of our obsolete, old, or even contemporary English words. If any reader is planning a future visit to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust they could perhaps start with the Account of Roger Paget, Master of the Guild of the Holy Cross (catalogue ref: BRT1/3/80). According to the catalogue description that I’ve just discovered online, Roger’s account for the year 1468-1469 makes mention of 2s 4d paid to ‘turnespyttes’. In the OED the current earliest known usage for ‘turnspit’ (as a boy or man) is 1607 – so someone at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust might be able to push the collective evidence back by more than a century…

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