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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

From Student Researcher to Careful Scholar: Tips from a Lexicographer

Grant Barrett

editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary web site

As a lexicographer, dictionary web site editor and co-host of the KBPS radio show "A Way With Words," I receive a large number of questions from the public about word histories.

Many of these queries come from students who want help with their studies. As long as I'm not asked to research the entirety of an assignment, I try to provide a few key sources, a few examples of useful searches and to warn them off of sources I know to be misleading or wrong. My overall intent is to educate these students on how to better find digital data for all of their research, that is, to help them become careful scholars.

For example, I can see in the logs of my dictionary web site that some web searchers share the characteristics of bad drivers: either they are too timid or they are too aggressive. The ability of Google to turn up excellent results no matter how poorly a query is composed seems to bring on a high level of impatience. While conducting searches on sites other than Google, these hurried searchers rarely try alternative approaches like breaking compounds up into two words or making two words a single-word compound, using plurals or conjugated forms, or looking for intentional misspellings, such as eye dialect. They also search as if all query functions on all web sites can handle natural language queries, when, in fact, few can. Searchers often misspell words and don't notice. (When they do, I see the correctly spelled word appear immediately after in a new search). So, I tell these students that becoming a careful scholar means to search with an eye for error—his or hers and others'—and to keep in mind the variety and variability of English orthography.

Some new scholars—and some who should know better—take the first citation of a entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as if it were the first use ever of a word and even credit the author of that citation with coinage. But while OED is the most-lauded dictionary in English, it is also the most corrected. Careful scholars will know that the first citation for an OED entry does not necessarily represent the first time a word was ever used, just the first time a word was used and found in print by editors by the time of publication. Same for other historical dictionaries like the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) or the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS).

Further, since the 1989 publication of the OED's second edition, many new digital databases have appeared that allow full-text searches of books, newspapers, ephemera, and other printed matter. Readex's America's Historical Newspapers, an Archive of Americana collection, is among these. With such databases, it is now commonplace for many of OED's second-edition entries to be antedated by a brief search. Successfully finding an earlier instance of a word can add history and nuance to the understanding of a term, and, in some cases, overturn arguments as to motives and outcomes.

Because of careful and time-consuming editing, it may be years or decades before these new, earlier uses are reflected in OED, DARE or HDAS. So if credit is being given in an essay or paper to someone for having "coined" a word, it behooves the careful scholar to do at least a cursory search of the full-text online databases to see if those dictionaries can be bested.

One example in my own work is the term "shot house," which I have defined as "a place where alcohol is (illegally) sold by the drink." OED doesn't have the term at all, but DARE has it with a first cite of 1974. A quick search of full-text databases turned up the term being used in 1860—an antedating of 114 years. That 19th-century appearance of "shot house" surprised me by its demonstration that the term was not a product of Prohibition (though it was used then, too) and added something about the opprobriousness of such places to my definition—the kind of expansion of meaning that DARE editors will likely do should they revise the entry for a second edition.

With direct access to fully searchable historical resources, there's also the advantage of overtaking a dictionary. DARE, for example, has only defined words up to those beginning with the letters "Sk" and OED is notoriously shy on Americanisms. Neither, therefore, yet has an entry for the curious expression "who laid the rail," which we received as a query on the KPBS radio show "A Way With Words." It's an adverbial phrase used in all sorts of strange ways to indicate that something is done "with all possible speed, force, or action" or "completely, thoroughly, excessively, endlessly, limitlessly, quickly." Using America's Historical Newspapers, the earliest use of the term I found was on page four of the October 15, 1881 issue of the Macon (Georgia) Telegraph and Messenger in an article headlined "Mrs. Arter and the Cow Ordinance."

I often encourage students to become careful scholars by researching as far up the information tree as possible: go to the digital databases, construct sensible and nuanced queries and be prepared to find that there is indeed new information about word histories to be had from primary sources. There's plenty such work left to do.

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