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From ‘carbonation’ to ‘navy blue’: which words came to life 200 years ago?

If the dawning of the New Year invariably brings you to brood upon the inexorable march of time, you find yourself in good company. Here at the Oxford English Dictionary, we are very aware of how what society does—and even how society thinks—is much informed by the movement from past to present, and onward into future. Not only does it constantly keep us on our toes as a centuries-old publishing house (and how would one describe oed.com to James Murray?), it is the most important lens through which we view our very favorite thing: language, which succumbs to (or molds, depending on whom you ask) the particular ebbs and flows of time in endlessly fascinating ways.

That being said, as we acquaint ourselves with the year 2013—and spend a few weeks scribbling out/deleting 2s to replace them with 3s—we leap at this January opportunity to look backwards at the English language. Last year we examined 1912, one hundred years prior, when words like ‘jazz’ and ‘ambivalence’ came to be; this year we set our dials to two hundred years in the past, the year of 1813, a time besotted with romanticism, plagued by war, energized by—if apprehensive of—industry and scientific discovery.

Science: Atomic Theory, Biology, Medicine

Have you heard of John Dalton? In 1813, he was so popular that his last name inspired an adjective—Daltonian—meaning ‘relating to John Dalton, or the atomic theory first enunciated by him.’ Dalton’s contributions to the development of atomic theory included scientific conclusions that are quite familiar to us today, even viewed as givens: that elements are composed of atoms; that these atoms cannot be created or destroyed; and that these atoms are combined or rearranged during chemical reactions. The growing prevalence of scientific study on a micro-level in 1813 led to a burst of words in company with Dalton’s experiments and ideas; these words include fluorine and electrochemic, as well as both electronegative and electropositive, and even carbonation

In addition to the study of elements and chemical reactions, other sciences were emerging in 1813, particularly in the field of biology. Indeed, the words mammal and mammalian have a first citation of 1813 in the OED, as do anthropoid and molluscous. Mastology (the study of mammals) also currently has a first quotation from 1813 in the OED (though the word itself was short-lived, the biological science it signifies is, of course, not).

In addition to biology, other -ologies growing in popularity at this time were climatology and horology, both first documented in 1813 (although the entry for horology is yet to be updated, and things can change); the word geologian (a less common term for geologist) also made its first appearance 200 years ago, as well as the word obstetrics.

War

Britain and the United States were locked in battle in 1813 as the War of 1812 raged on; the war’s proximity to the Revolutionary War may have contributed to the initiation of the new term colonialist, and the impressment of Americans into the Royal Navy—with much of the war fought at sea— saw the birth of navy blue.

However, it was not only the War of 1812 that distinguished the year 1813 as a time of international conflict. After many years of dominance in Europe and though victorious well into the summer, Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces were finally defeated in Leipzig in October; the Russo-Persian War came to an end with the Treaty of Gulistan in the autumn; and the Mexican War of Independence, which saw Mexico revolting against the Spanish colonial government, had already been fought for 13 years (and would continue into 1821).

Words like colour sergeant and war-dog also sprung from this war-ridden period; both have first examples in the OED from 1813, and colour sergeant in particular arose when the ranking was created by George IV to recognize non-commissioned officers who had served in the Peninsular War. Other new terms like Russo-German (with German states and Russia involved in the Napoleonic Wars) would become even more meaningful 130 years later during World War II.

Pride and Prejudice, Propriety, and Class

In 1813, a much-beloved English author published a much-beloved English book: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is, at the time of writing, quoted over 200 times in the OED. Austen’s novel has also provided us with current first usage of many words, including stuffy (in the sense lacking in freshness, interest, or smartness) and thing (meaning a significant, notable, or sensational circumstance), as well as the phrases ‘is (or was) not to be’ and ‘to ask too much’.

Given that Pride and Prejudice is a novel dealing largely with issues of propriety, manners, and class—capturing the zeitgeist of everyday society—it is not surprising that 1813 also saw other texts introduce verbs like ma’am (as in, to call someone ‘ma’am’), and nouns such as class distinction and Gretna Green. Though the name Gretna Green was not invented in 1813—it was already the name of a small Scottish village just beyond the border with England—Gretna Green at this time came to refer the custom of couples eloping to the village in order to skirt parental consent laws in their home country (effectively raining shame upon their families’ heads for decades to come).

If the words of 1813 signify anything about the time, it is that society was no less conflicted 200 years ago than it is today, albeit in many different ways. The strict adherence to rules and tradition, to class and impenetrable limits that overshadow Pride and Prejudice existed simultaneously with scientific innovation and risk—and, as ever in history, both tradition and innovation would find ways to continue even in the face of near-omnipresent war.