I was just trying to see what the OED had to say about white in the sense of ‘reactionary’ (Metternich having talked about “white radicals” in 1834) when I was struck by the subentry for whiter than white ‘extremely white’ (“In mod. use popularized as an advertising slogan for Persil soap-powder”). After a nod at Shakespeare’s 1592 Ven. & Ad. 398 “Teaching the sheets a whiter hew then white,” the first citation is the following:

a1924 N.E.D. s.v. White sb. 23, Exceeding or surpassing white, ‘whiter than white’.

So wait, you get to use it yourself in the first edition, then quote that use as a citation in the second? I know, I know, the quotation marks imply the phrase was in current use, but it still makes my head spin.


  1. If you have an e-version of OED2 (I don’t) you can query by source of citation. I wonder how many other entries cite “N.E.D.”
    I wonder, if they actually find an antedating, whether they will remove the embarrassing self-reference. I know they have a policy of not removing words or senses; but does that also apply to quotations?

  2. The OED people must be firmly chastised. No cookies for them!

  3. Nay, more than firmly: they must be severely chastised for their unconscionable actions!

  4. It’s as if we were to find that the iridium meter standard in Paris (“neither a meter long, nor not a meter long”, according to Wittgenstein) was in some way a little off. Worlds would collapse in that case. I hope not in this one!

  5. The platinum/iridium meter bar hasn’t been the standard meter for decades.
    The kilogram standard is, for reasons nobody understands, gaining weight. This was in the news lately.
    J. Del Col

  6. So now the platinum-iridium bar either is, or is not one meter long? I don’t see how Wittgenstein’s reputation can survive this revelation.

  7. ‘I wonder how many other entries cite “N.E.D.”‘
    Searching for ‘N.E.D.’ as the work title gives 111, and searching for ‘N.E.D.’ as the work author gives one more, as well as the following in the etymology part of the entry for emu:
    ‘The form emu is now more common in popular writing, and has latterly been adopted in the transactions of the Zoological Society. Prof. Newton, however, and some other eminent authorities prefer the older form emeu’ (N.E.D., 1891).

  8. Well, I recently endorsed this very practice, at the thread OED Updates:

    I suppose the policy of retaining a word once it is included is sound because occurrence in any edition of the OED – a work central to the “canon” – is itself a notable occurrence warranting a continued record. Perhaps the OED should in some cases explicitly give its own earlier editions as sources.

  9. So you did! I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or firmly—nay, severely—chastise you.

  10. Well, I managed to quote myself, and so introduce ironic self-reference into your blog, LH. Surely I accrue merit for that at least.

  11. Do I quote myself? “Very well, then, I quote myself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.'”

  12. Terry Collmann says

    Smacks to me (chastisement pun intended) too much of that time-dishonoured journalistic trick of quoting “friends” in stories about celebrities when the “quotes” were made up back in the newsroom and the “friends” were in the reporter’s imagination …

  13. Update: “white” was revised in March 2015, and the self-quotation was replaced with four genuine antedatings, from 1597 to 1872. It is surprising that the Second Edition couldn’t find real citations, and citing the dictionary itself does seem rather desperate; Examining the OED indicates that the coverage of the early 20th century was relatively weak in OED2, since the collection of quotations for the First Edition was winding down at that time, and Burchfield’s Supplements concentrated on new words from the 1930s on. Today you can go to Hathitrust and easily collect many examples of “whiter than white” from the early 1900s, especially in bad poetry — but in Burchfield’s day it would have been hard to fill that gap.

  14. Thanks very much for that — my mind is relieved after all these years!

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