Rechecking Citations at the OED.

In this Wordorigins thread, ktschwarz has recounted a couple of fine examples of the kind of detective work which puts the OED head and shoulders above other dictionaries. In regard to the “ghost” citation for roger ‘penis’ from OED1 “1653 URQUHART Rabelais I. xi”:

The reference to Urquhart appeared in the First Edition, which was too prudish to give a definition for roger, and they suppressed the text of the quotations too, except for “a Man’s Yard” (I guess yard was too obsolete to be offensive). The Second Edition must have tried and failed to verify the quote. And now the Third Edition has solved the mystery (entry revised November 2010, modified June 2021). The quote from the Rabelais translation now appears, unexpurgated:

1694 P. A. Motteux tr. F. Rabelais Wks. i. xi. 44 And some of the other Women would give these Names, My Roger, my Cockatoo, my Nimble-wimble, Bush-beater, Claw-buttock, lusty Live Saucage.

Urquhart had published only the first two books of his Rabelais translation; Motteux revised and completed the translation after Urquhart’s death. But some editions, such as this one, are unclear or wrong on whether the first two books are the original or revised version; somebody must have read one of those and incorrectly attributed it to Urquhart. This is the original Urquhart, in Book 1 Chapter XI, “Of the Youthful Age of Gargantua”, from the Project Gutenberg link above:

And some of the other women would give it these names,–my bunguetee, my stopple too, my bush-rusher, my gallant wimble, my pretty borer, my coney-burrow-ferret, my little piercer, my augretine, my dangling hangers, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, my pusher, dresser, pouting stick, my honey pipe, my pretty pillicock, linky pinky, futilletie, my lusty andouille, and crimson chitterling, my little couille bredouille, my pretty rogue, and so forth.

The quote about “the nocturnal Sanct Rogero” is definitely relevant, but that’s from Book 3 in Motteux’s version, and the OED presumably didn’t want two quotes from the same book.

All in a day’s work at the OED! This is one of millions of reasons why they were right to make the investment in revising every entry and rechecking every quotation. Just twenty or thirty more years to go.

And today this addition:

Another great story about re-checking quotations, from John Simpson’s The Word Detective. In the OED1 the first citation for pal, in the earliest sense of a criminal accomplice, was dated 1682 in a legal deposition: “Wheare have you been all this day, pall?.. Why, pall, what would you have mee to doe?” But Simpson, chief editor of the Third Edition, thought this sounded too formal for a conversation between thieves. On his day off he drove from Oxford to the Herefordshire Record Office, there to spend a day with the archivist tracking down the exact piece of paper that somebody had read for the OED a hundred years before, written two hundred years before that—an incredible feat of record-keeping! And on studying the whole context, he figured out that the quote was addressed to a Mary Ashmoore, and that Pall was an attested variant of Poll, variant of Polly, nickname of Mary. A false trail! So they dropped that quotation, leaving c1770 as the earliest attestation of pal in English.

Pal originates from Anglo-Romani and is cognate with brother, as noted by OP Tipping.

Loving this book. I’ve been bookmarking page after page with joy. Simpson lived through a revolution.

I’ve had a review copy of the Simpson book for five years (I posted about it here); it’s clearly high time I read it, and I’ve extracted it from the tottering piles to the left of my desk and put it on top.


  1. The Oxford English Dictionary also has at least one ghost meaning (‘stage properties’ s. v theatricals), contrived by an editor before March 1912, published in the first and second editions, presumably to be corrected in a future revision, and incorporated as ‘theatrical memorabilia’ into Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged.

    Details here:

    Gold, David L. 2020. ”Ghost Meanings Created by Dictionaries: The Case of Dickens’s Use of the Word theatricals.” Dickens Quarterly. Vol. 37. No. 3. September. Pp. 226-236.

  2. Interesting. Since the article is behind a paywall, can you tell us what Dickens meant by it?

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Dickens wrote a letter to someone saying that he couldn’t go somewhere on a particular night because he ‘had some theatricals at home’, someone copied down just the ‘I have some theatricals at home’ for the OED quotation, missing the contex, and (presumably) someone else read it as meaning a *thing* that he had.

  4. Yes, that was in the page visible at DG’s link, but what did he mean by “had some theatricals”? He was putting on a play?

  5. Dickens meant ‘amateur theatrical performances’.

    The letter in which Dickens wrote to Frances Trolllope that he could not accept her invitation to witness a “medium” demonstrate his skills (“I was out of town on Sunday, or I should have answered your note immediately on its arrival. I cannot have the pleasure of seeing the famous ‘medium’ to-night, for I have some theatricals at home. But I fear I shall not in any case be a good subject for the purpose, as I altogether want faith in the thing”) was first published in a collection of his letters that appeared in 1880 and reprinted in The Pilgrim Edition of his letters (1965-2002), in both of which publications it is clear that he had events, not objects, in mind.

    Letters that Dickens sent to other people just before the date of his letter to Trollope (19 June 1855) confirm that on the evening of that day amateur theatrical performances were to take place in the theater that he had built at home.

    The excerpter should have provided a longer cotext and the editor, in the absence of such, should have asked for one.

  6. Thanks!

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    What French word was being rendered in the “My Roger, my Cockatoo” passage, and is it a “regular” French sexual slang item of the day or a nonce coinage by Rabelais? I guess same question for “noctural Sanct Rogero.”

    One of the few occasions in which I used my linguistics skill-set at the very beginning of my legal career was in intuiting (in pre-web-search-engine days) that the first name of very-prominent-in-his-day federal judge the Hon. Ruggero Aldisert (1919-2014) must be the Italian variant of “Roger,” via the Norman conquest of Sicily or some such vector. (Those who were on familiar enough terms not to address him as “Your Honor” generally called him “Rugi,” which makes the connection more obscure.)

  8. The word from Rabelais that Urquhart translated as flayed as quoted in that thread is escorchez.

    I really want Spanish cognates corcho and descorchar to be relevant here, because flayed doesn’t have the necessary frisson. It’s just painful and bloody. If Rabelais was playing with alternate meanings of “strip the bark/cork off” and “uncork”, it would work for me.

    But I’ve tried and can’t find any relevant cognate in French, even in historical dictionaries, that allows anything like uncork. Maybe Rabelais really just meant “peel.” Ouch!

    France as a country isn’t very foreign, but the past…

  9. I guess same question for “noctural Sanct Rogero.”

    That passage is available in French beginning at the bottom of this page; “the nocturnal Sanct Rogero” represents “le sainct sang breguoy,” but I have no idea how that works.

  10. As for the “My Roger, my Cockatoo” passage, the original is here, but it’s much shorter in French:

    L’une la nommoit ma petite dille, l’aultre ma pine, l’aultre ma branche de coural, l’aultre mon bondon, mon bouchon, mon vibrequin, mon possouer, ma terière, ma petite andouille vermeille, ma petite couille bredouille.

  11. “Coney-burrow-ferret” is pretty good.

  12. David L. Gold says

    “That passage is available in French beginning at the bottom of this page; “the nocturnal Sanct Rogero” represents “le sainct sang breguoy,” but I have no idea how that works.”

    I do not know either, but the first three words clearly mean ‘the holy blood’ and the entry for breguoy in George Pfeffer’s Beiträge zum wortschatz des 3. buches Rabelais’ (die Rabelais eigentümlichen wörter) ( refers to the entry for brego on page 38 of volume 1 of C. W. M. Grein’s Sprachschatz der angelsächsischen Dichter, where we read that “Gott und Christus heissen brego” (, so that if that interpretation is right, “le sainct sang breguoy is an oath meaning ‘by the holy blood of Christ!’.

  13. Thanks, that makes sense.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Can’t say I was familiar with the word “brego” in Angelsächsische or otherwise, but this suggests that maybe “by the Lord’s holy blood” would be a cromulent translation?

  15. The 1994 Pléiade edition of Rabelais’ Oeuvres complètes (edited by Mireille Huchon) glosses “par le sainct sang breguoy” as “par le sang de Dieu” and adds a note “Juron atténué”.

  16. Brego is the name of the second king of Rohan, the son of Eorl the Young. As with all of Tolkien’s names for the Rohirrim kings, it is an Old English term or epithet for a lord. It may or may not also be related to brag, which is of unclear origin.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Is it related to Welsh brenin, maybe?

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    I would look for a simpler route from sang (de) dieu to sambreguoy than a word from the poetic register of an older form of the language of a neighbouring country. For me it is like saying Odd’s Bodkins must mean “by the holy books” by way of French bouquin 😊.

  19. I also meant to mention that Ruggiero is a major Matter of France character. I think he first appears in the late twelfth century, which is well after the conquest* of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily by Roger de Hauteville and his brothers. According to most tellings, Ruggiero’s mother was an African Muslim princess, but his father was a Calabrian knight, which suggests that the name may well have been associated with the French-speaking noble class that ruled much of southern Italy in the high Middle Ages.

    * Conquest by methods I previously mentioned here

  20. mon bondon

    One of the few surviving inscriptions in Gaulish had this to say:

    moni gnatha gabi / buððutton imon (RIG l. 119) “my girl, take my penis(?)[67]”

  21. John Emerson says

    I have read that Urquhart was not fussy about matching his translated words to anything specific in the French text, and that the words he chose were often more colorful and vivid than Rabelais’ word.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    judging from the variants nata/gnatha/geneta, in Gaulish (1) the accent was on the final a; (2) the g was weakened or lenited to e.g., h or y (influence from Latin nata/nativa?). In Middle Irish you have ingen, genetar, where the weakening of the g in Modern Irish iníon does not apply to the verb or other derived forms, e.g., céadghin = first-born.

  23. You can read John Simpson’s story about pal without buying the book, in his March 2009 update notes (scroll down to “The importance of context: a short case study”). Here he reveals that in the Third Edition’s revision of pal in March 2005, they *did* carry over the 1682 quotation from the old edition, even though “The document in which the term was said to be found had not been traced, and was presumed lost.” It was only when “a correspondent asked us for further information” that they dug further and found the background. Bravo for that correspondent, and for checking first-use quotations in their full context!

  24. A couple of re-checked quotations turned up among the piecemeal revisions (now marked with the ⓘ symbol) in December 2021:

    1. Under truss, a new sense has been created — a harness to suspend an actor from a rope or hook in performance — supported by a single quotation from the account books for a Coventry mystery play: “Pd for a trwse for Judas, ijs viijd. Pd for a new hoke to hange Judas, vjd.” (For the scene of Judas’s suicide.) This is a byproduct of the full revision of trews, trouse, trousers: that quotation had previously appeared under trouse (early form of trousers), which was a misinterpretation, perhaps due to insufficient context.

    2. Under epipastic, the single quotation for the noun sense is now condemned as “An erroneous transcription in N.E.D. for epispastic” (which means causing blisters). Here’s the page image in Pharmacopœia Extemporanea (1710), from a recipe for a cataplasm (= poultice) for treatment of quinsy (= tonsillitis):

    Take Figs 4 ounces ; Album Græcum half an ounce ; Flower of Sulphur, long Pepper, each 1 dram ; Brandy 2 ounces ; Chymical Oil of Wormwood 16 drops ; Diacodium as much as will serve, beat all in a Mortar ’till well mixt. To these may be added Swallows or Pigeons Dung, lay it to the Throat, from Ear to Ear, and renew it as often as it drieth.

    Now in this Distemper, the main Scopes we are to drive at, are to Liquify the Pituita, and comfort, and empty the Glands: And these Intentions are serv’d best by such sort of warm external Applications and Gargles: Care being taken at the same time, to cut off, and prevent greater Inflammation, and a Flux to the Part, by plentiful Bleedings, Glysters, Epispasticks, and by proper Internals to appease the angry rage of the Spirits, and allay the Effervescence of the Blood and Humours.

    Yes, I sure hope the pigeon dung is for external use only!

    The other quotation is fishy, too, since it’s just a dictionary definition of Epipastic Silk as “vesicatory silk”, and vesicatory is just another word for causing blisters. Whether epipastic has ever had an independent life, other than as a misspelling of epispastic, remains to be investigated.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    cataplasm (= poultice)

    RIL that this is alive and kicking in French, as cataplasme. Also in the delightful colloquial sense

    # Aliment épais et difficile à absorber et à digérer. #

  26. @ktschwarz: I like epipastic as a chimeric adjective for pastes meant to be applied externally.

  27. ktschwarz says

    Here’s a weird case of a quotation from the wrong source. Under chip, n.2, there’s a group of senses related to “wood fragments, fibre, etc., considered as a material”, including:

    4a.(b) Thin strips or slivers of wood … used in the manufacture of hats, baskets, …
    b. An article woven or made from chip (sense 4a(b)). …
    (b) Chiefly British. A small basket of a type used for packaging fruit. …
    1922 J. Joyce in Q. Rev. Oct. 230 Chips of strawberries.

    Joyce wrote something in Quarterly Review in 1922? Well, it’s easy to check (all praise to Hathitrust) that the quote is exactly where they say it is — in a book review of Ulysses! (The reviewer quoted some of the passages and praised them, but denounced the book for obscenity: this review convinced the British government to ban it.) Why did they quote a book review instead of the book itself? It doesn’t make sense, especially since they also quote that very page of Ulysses — the very next line! — under pelurious.

    (Chip was revised in December 2021; it’s surprising that they didn’t fix this, and also surprising that they couldn’t find an antedate for a usage that Joyce obviously didn’t invent.)

    And here’s an opposite case, where they rechecked the quote and realized that it shouldn’t be in there at all. Alphabet book was first entered in the 1972 Supplement, as a sub-entry of alphabet:

    Special Comb. alphabet book, a book for teaching the alphabet …
    1922 Joyce Ulysses 49 One of the alphabet books you were going to write.

    But this is insufficient context. Turn back a few pages in the Proteus chapter and you’ll find Stephen thinking about “Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W.” Not books for teaching the alphabet! (Yes, “alphabet books” may work as a pun in the second reference, but it really doesn’t demonstrate the meaning, which is what a dictionary needs.) When they revised alphabet, they sensibly dropped this quote, and found other and earlier quotes that do fit the definition.

  28. “it really doesn’t demonstrate the meaning, which is what a dictionary needs”

    Quotes illustrate not only denotation but also connotation, register, grammatical context, and dating. I would guess the last of these was decisive for Ulysses’s “alphabet book” since OED always gives its earliest quote, though it should have been a candidate for the square brackets of uncertainty.

  29. That overstates how much “deciding” was going on for the Supplement. It was 1972, they didn’t have Google Books, they weren’t trying to be exhaustive. If a compound like alphabet book was found in the reading program of Great Modernist Writers and it wasn’t already in OED1, then it went in; searching for antedates would have been beyond their resources. They never meant to imply that T.S. Eliot invented ocean liner and poker game.

    At least Eliot’s ocean liner did actually fit the definition! Joyce’s alphabet book wasn’t even close enough for square brackets. This was a case of too little context on the citation slip, followed by an editor reading the usual definition into the fragment. (John Simpson acknowledges, in an article on Joyce and the OED, that the cards for Ulysses “did create problems for the lexicographers, because they rarely gave any help to the reader on meaning or context, and each quotation typically consisted of a very small fragment”.)

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