Fact vs Fancy

Posted by Word Camel on April 03, 2002

In Reply to: About the OED posted by R. Berg on April 02, 2002

: : : What's wrong, does my explanation make more sense then your Oxford English Dictionary? You know as well as I do the 2002 edition doesn't look anything like the 1669 edition. I'm sorry that your ego is so fragile that it can't take questioning.

: : Insults don't help--and then there's always "Don't trash the volunteers who provide a service." I'll try to make my point another way. This will be the same explanation as before, but in different words.

: : You (that is, anyone) are free to pick your clothes, your friends, and the decor for your home by "what feels right." When it comes to deciding the origin of a word, however, a more scientific mode of thought is called for, because we're talking about things that happened. A series of past events. External reality. Once in a while the OED does get something wrong, but I won't apologize for accepting their theory of "redskin" over yours. They arrive at their explanations with the help of old documents that most of us haven't seen.

: : You're welcome to make a case for the bloody-hands theory of "redskin," but imagination--"Well, it could have gone like this"--isn't enough. You'd have to show some evidence. I didn't make up that requirement; that's just the way it is when we're talking about the real world.

: By the way, there is no 1669 edition of the OED. There is no 2002 edition. Right now they're working on the 2009 (they hope) edition. The OED's entry for a word or phrase includes quotations showing how it was used, in context, at different times throughout its history. Some quotations go back to the year 725 (Beowulf). The history of "redskin" as documented by the OED editors goes back only to 1669.

Knowing the the first time a phrase is important because it gives us the best clue as to the origin of the phrase. Sometimes we know by the context and sometimes, as in this case - we can see what it meant but not necessarily why.

It's fun to wonder why people started using particular phrases and we can speculate endlessly. But ultimately without finding a reference where someone writing around the time the phrase started to be used explains why it was used that way, we can't really know one way or another. If you found one - you could send it to the OED and they'd use it!

In a previous post I was practically salivating to discover that straw man was some blood thirsty refrence to human sacrifice. But references prove that I'm wrong. It's all about men lurking outside the courts in London with straw in their shoes. If I was really bothered, I could do some research and try to make a case for it. Actually, I confess I spent an hour at the library yesterday looking!

I think hunting down the origins of phrases is fun precisely because we can find proof to confirm our theories.