I’ve started reading Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (from my pile of loot) and I swear, for an OED fan it’s like a combination of thriller and revisionist history. Who knew there was so much angst behind the magisterial columns of type? Lynda Mugglestone has gone through the heavily marked-up proofs, the correspondence, everything that might cast light on the history of the first edition (which was supposed to be finished in ten years and took almost half a century). I’ll pass along a couple of tidbits (and will doubtless have more as I read).

To set the scene for the first excerpt, she’s been discussing the untimely death of the first editor, Herbert Coleridge, in 1861, after only a single specimen page had been printed, and his replacement by Frederick Furnivall, a brilliant man under whose leadership the dictionary made no obvious progress because his “redoubtable zeal and energy went into the establishment of authoritative sources on which a future dictionary might depend, as well as into the extension of the reading programme for such sources…. Furnivall established (among others) the Early English Text Society in 1864, the Ballad Society and the Chaucer Society in 1868, the New Shakspere [sic] Society in 1873, and the Wyclif Society in 1886.” Now comes the part that made me want to stand up and cheer:

His socialist beliefs moreover continued to establish a firm foundation for the linguistic democracy which the dictionary was intended to enact. As Furnivall emphasized in his circulars to the readers for the dictionary, the work in the making was by no means merely to be a ‘National Portrait Gallery’ of the great and the good. Instead it was to be a realm in which ‘all the members, of the race of English words’ would find equal representation.

If you think the forces of linguistic conservatism are strong now, they were far more so then, when there was no example of a truly inclusive dictionary in English, and the editors had to fight the resistance of the Delegates who held the purse-strings every inch of the way. Furnivall, despite the lack of progress in the decade of his editorship (the 1860s), was not the least of the heroes responsible for the all-embracing nature of the dictionary as we have it.

The second excerpt had quite the reverse effect, horrifying me to the extent that I probably looked briefly like this:

[Sir Frederick] Pollock [this one?] was particularly adept at spotting potential anomalies of this kind [words used in citations that were not found as entries], his emphatic ‘Not in NED’ or ‘What is this? Not in Dict‘ regularly alerting editors and dictionary staff to the fact that some difficulty had once again surfaced in the proofs. Aplaintife was another unrecorded form spotted by Pollock at an early stage of the dictionary. ‘The defendant by his false plea maketh himself chargeable both to the aplaintife & to the garnishee’, Sir Henry Finch had stated in his Law, or, a discourse thereof of 1613, providing, for the purposes of the OED, a quotation which aptly illustrated the first recorded use of garnishee in English. This was a legal term which Bradley had painstakingly defined. Nevertheless, if the utility of the quotation was incontestable in this respect, in terms of aplaintife it proved deeply disturbing. Aplaintife, as the dictionary staff found when checking the material in this case, was anything but a ghost. This was a real word which had inadvertently been missed during the earlier reading programmes. Bradley found himself in a real dilemma. Were he to include the quotation in the form in which it had appeared in his first proof, then it would necessarily foreground the absence of aplaintife from Murray’s earlier work on Ant–Batten, and this, from a number of points of view, would be unacceptable. Moreover, because of the serial publication of the OED, it was impossible to insert aplaintife where it should rightly have appeared — in spite of its undoubted legitimacy. After all, this section of the dictionary had been published thirteen years previously, in 1885. Another solution must be found. It was for these reasons that Bradley evidently decided to delete the quotation, together with all evidence for the existence and use of aplaintife in English. [At this point I penciled two large exclamation marks in the margin.—LH] Another example of garnishee from the same year and the same text was located (‘If they were deliuered vpon other condition then the defendant alledgeth, the garnishee is at no mischiefe but the defendant’) and it was this which Bradley inserted in the fascicle as finally published. His action preserved the integrity of the entry and also managed to resolve the anomaly that Pollock’s ever vigilant eye had spotted. But it was undeniably at the expense of a word which was — and still is — entirely unregistered in lexicographical terms.

I am truly shocked at the choice to avoid recording an English word rather than risk embarrassing the editor-in-chief.

Update. It appears I was horrified for no good reason. I have heard from a reliable source that the word appears, as far as can be told, only in that sentence in that edition of that book, and is almost certainly a typo; the author seems to have hyped it to add drama to her book at the expense of Bradley, to whose ghost I apologize for taking her at her word.


  1. clodhopper says

    Must be a great read to have insight to the behind the scenes, ’tis like baying at the new moon on cloudy night so much to know so little to see.
    It is wonderful what 26 little letters create.
    Be looking forward to see the other supposed uses of a word.

  2. Shocking. But….
    I have to say, as a lawyer with more than a little interest in legal history, I’ve never heard of “aplaintife” before. Ever. In my life. And I’ve been around the law for three decades now. Is it a variant of “plaintiff”? Black’s Law (the redoubtable Fifth Edition) has no listing for it, even though it’s loaded down with Latin aphorisms that haven’t seen the inside of a court proceeding in the last hundred years: jumps straight from a Latin maxim which teaches that capture by pirates or brigands does not transfer title to apnea under a variant spelling. Is “aplaintife” truly not a ghost?

  3. Kishnevi, please don’t deprive me of the knowledge of which Latin maxim teaches that capture by pirates or brigands does not transfer title. I have no copy of Black’s Law at hand to slake my curiosity otherwise.

  4. Am I misremembering that the digitization at Waterloo turned up a handful of words used in definitions that weren’t defined (or readily derived from forms that were)? All I find now is Peterson’s earlier paper on Webster’s 7th (where there were 54 of them). I lost my OED1 CD-ROM years ago, so I cannot easily experiment myself.

  5. A piratis et latronibus capta dominum non mutant. Capture by pirates and robbers does not change title. No right to booty vests in piratical captors; no right can be derived from them by recaptors to the prejudice of the original owners.
    So just because you’ve found Captain Kidd’s buried treasure doesn’t mean you actually own it.
    Immediately preceded by A piratis aut latronibus capti liberi permanent. Persons taken by pirates or robbers remain free.
    And apnea is spelled apnoea, with the joined o-e which my ASCII-fu is not strong enough to reproduce here.

  6. Early English Books Online has an edition of Finch’s Law from 1627, and it spells the word in that passage as plaintife. (This edition from 1759 renders it as plaintiff.) I’m thinking aplaintife with the extra a was just a typo, so its omission was no huge loss.

  7. I am truly shocked at the choice to avoid recording an English word rather than risk embarrassing the editor-in-chief
    In my ignorance I assumed that such roguish behaviour would be the norm, however reprehensible. It also reminded me very much of Blackadder’s Ink and Incapability, still my favourite of that series.

  8. Owlmirror says

    [plaintif, pleintif and Middle French plaintif (1260 in Old French in sense ‘the party that brings a suit in a court of law’), use as noun of plaintif PLAINTIVE adj. Compare PLAINTIVE adj.
    I find myself wondering if perhaps all of the instances of “aplaintife” were actually because one particular typesetter somehow became confused as to how the word we now know as “plaintiff” ought to be spelled. Perhaps something like “a napron” became “apron”?
    Are there words that entered the language because of a copyist’s or typesetter’s mistake?
    Is there a word for such words?

  9. Kishnevi, apnoea has an o-e ligature. If we follow the typical rules for HTML ampersand codes, we might try ampersand-oh-ee-lig-semicolon (œ).
    And if we do so, we get œ.
    Thus, apnœa, (apn&noelig;a) assuming that the preview matches the output.

  10. Kishnevi: all the refs I find to apnoea are to breathlessness. What is the legal sense please ?

  11. Richard J says

    How you feel on receiving your bill.

  12. I have to say, as a lawyer with more than a little interest in legal history, I’ve never heard of “aplaintife” before. Ever. … Is “aplaintife” truly not a ghost?
    Well, of course you haven’t; it was probably a rare word even when it existed, quickly superseded by something else, and there’s no reason Black’s or any other modern work should include it. Except for the OED, whose remit is to include all post-OE words that were actually in use. And no, it’s not a ghost, as “the dictionary staff found when checking the material.”
    I’m thinking aplaintife with the extra a was just a typo, so its omission was no huge loss.
    If that were the case, the staff would have decided it was a ghost word. They clearly found other examples of its use. And it’s entirely possible that in later editions of Finch it was replaced by plaintiff, which had become the standard term.

  13. Paul–the legal sense is breathlessness (or as Black’s puts it, want of breath).
    Apparently Black’s put in some medical terms that might come up in normal litigation or autopsy reports. Black’s definition goes to the trouble of distinguishing apn&noelig;a [thanks HP]from asphyxia, saying the two had been used interchangeably but should not be.

  14. LH–then why not treat it as a variant of plaintiff?
    HP–uh, apparently preview does not match output.

  15. Bathrobe says

    Thus, apnœa, (apn&noelig;a) assuming that the preview matches the output.
    The preview certainly matches the output on my computer:

  16. Bathrobe says

    why not treat it as a variant of plaintiff?
    Well that sounds like a reasonable suggestion. But it seems to me that the problem is that it was awkward so they didn’t bother treating it at all.

  17. Kishnevi, HP accidentally put an “n” in at one point. Should be “œ”, not “&noelig;”.

  18. Owlmirror says

    There was something niggling at the back of my mind last night, when thinking about typos becoming words, and I finally remembered what it was:
    Could aplaintife have been a “Dord” from that era?

  19. I remember my first OED. I got it for a $1.00 from some book club–agreeing to buy 5 or so books from them for the rest of the year. The OED that I got for a buck consisted of two large blue bound books in a special blue cardboard holder with a little drawer up at the top containing a magnifying glass. The type was so small–I mean, come on, the whole OED in two volumes! It was an amazing publishing feat at the time. And I remember the fun of squinting through that glass and discovering all those English words and the derivatives and when they were coined and quotes from early usages! I kept my precious OED up into the 80s when one day I found myself stone broke–a bad state to be in in New York City–desperate for bucks. I took my precious OED with the magnifying glass still in it to the Strand Bookstore–the “awful” buyer/guy there gave me $5.00 for it. How shameful I felt when I went to a diner and blew that whole five dollars in about 30 minutes over a stack of pancakes and several cups of black coffee.

  20. I had almost the opposite experience: In my late 20’s, around 1980, I decided I wanted a compact OED. I managed to buy direct from someone who had bought one as part of that book-club deal but didn’t want it any more, but I paid way more than $5; I must have seemed too keen.
    For the next 15 years or so, I could read it just fine without the magnifying glass if the light was good. Now I need either magnifying glass or reading glasses or, better yet, both, plus a bright light.
    My tale shameful book-reselling is of a slightly different kind. In my first year of college I took one semester of ancient Greek, but then in an attack of conscience (studying abstract math for the fun of it means throwing away what powers I have in a frivolous way instead of saving the world, and dead languages are an equally frivolous pursuit) I decided against going on to the next course. Not only did this mean passing up a chance to read a bit of Homer, but to compound my sins I sold my now unwanted Greek lexicon back to the bookstore. I remember almost no Greek, but I do remember the nicknames of the three sizes of Liddell and Scott.

  21. clodhopper says

    I always thought that lawyers liked misspelled words, so that the whole case could be thrown out on its ear.
    Dictionaries being a relative modern tool [less than 120 years in age] for getting on the same page of understanding, there has to be many words and phrases that are muddied and only now can be cast in concrete of understanding, maybe.
    Law being drowned in ancient words of misunderstanding only to be transformed by a few trained in the in language of the day.
    With a million words available and majority of us only can define than less 2 k worth, I find this new resource [ Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary ] most fascinating.

  22. Hard to believe we used to have to look things up to get info on anything let alone spelling. Now we can google anything and learn about it.
    Nope. I have just recived a couple of dictionaries fdrom a great bookseller in Mumbai and they have reminded me of the value of good dictionaries all over again. Especially the monolingual Hindi dictionary is proving to be a real godsend, and much easier to use than the online resources I’ve been making do with.

  23. Like thegrowlingwolf, empty, and others here (I’m sure), my first OED was that micrographically reproduced model. But I eventually bought the CDROM version, and donated the micro-OED to a worthy language-fiend friend.
    In Australia we had to pay a lot more for the micro-OED. Book clubs have never made such wonderful offers to us, since we are considered an isolated, ignorant, and cynically manipulable market. It’s the same in many departments of commercial and cultural life, I’m afraid. When I wanted to buy Petit Robert on CDROM, it would have cost a fortune if I had not got a friend in Belgium to take delivery of it for me (from French Amazon) and re-send it.
    So much for globalisation of trade. It’s a one-sided affair, as far as I can see. Subvert the system! Consumers of the world unite!

  24. Even if ‘aplaintiffe’ was a typo, it ought to have been recorded: the first volume of OED2 is A-Bazouki, and ‘Bazouki’ (if I recall correctly) is explained as a mis-spelling for ‘bouzouki’. The penultimate word in the volume is ‘bazoom’ – facetious form of ‘bosom’ (the example quotation here uses the word ‘titism’, which does not have an entry of its own, and whose definition I could not find under any of the meanings of ‘-ism’).

  25. Book clubs have never made such wonderful offers to us, since we are considered an isolated, ignorant, and cynically manipulable market.
    My heart would bleed for you Noetica, if if it weren’t for the fact that my gut reaction is to say “try living in an even MORE isolated market 1/5th the size of yours then get back to me with your Aussie sob story.”

  26. Think of the Pitcairn Islanders, Stuart.

  27. John Emerson says

    We are considered an isolated, ignorant, and cynically manipulable market.
    Certainly I would never be so bold as to say such a thing, even if, God forbid, I suspected that it might be true.
    I still have my $1 micro OED bought in 1975 — I remember where I was living when it was delivered — but my son lost the magnifying glass after a happy afternoon burning ants on the sidewalk.
    I got my two 3 and 4 y.o. grandnephews magnifying glasses and flashlights for Christmas, and they were perfect gifts.
    I can still more or less read the mini-OED, but I have to use a bright light.

  28. I paid $25 for my Compact OED, and it didn’t even have the magnifying glass (this was circa 1979), but I was thrilled, and have hung on to it ever since. (Fortunately I am nearsighted and have never needed the glass.)

  29. Think of the Pitcairn Islanders, Stuart.
    Yes but, do either of them read?

  30. Bill Walderman says

    A piratis aut latronibus capti liberi permanent.
    This must go back to when valid title to human beings could be transferred.

  31. This must go back
    Right. Dig. means Justinian’s Digest.

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