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Which Winston? Confusable names in the OED

Thomas Hardy was born on 22 May 1804. “But wait,” I hear you cry, clutching the Dictionary of National Biography to your chest, fanning yourself down with a copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge, clasping an edition of – no, sorry, you’ve run out of hands – “Thomas Hardy was born on 2 June 1840, I’d stake my life on it!”

Well, you’re right. And wrong. If you’re talking about the novelist and poet, then you are perfectly correct that Mr Hardy was born on 2 June 1840 – I applaud your impressive memory – but, particularly when looking at the illustrative quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s worth remembering that more than one person can share a name. The Thomas Hardy I mentioned is one Thomas Duffus Hardy (1804-1878), historian and archivist, and his work is currently quoted in the OED as supporting evidence for words including datal, dogdrave, and pellipar. That’s small fry compared to the well-known novelist, who is currently the 154th most quoted source in the OED, between fellow-writers Thomas Dekker and George Bernard Shaw – but it’s always worth double-checking before you’re certain you’ve picked the right Thomas Hardy. (The Hollywood actor and the two characters of that name from General Hospital are, perhaps unsurprisingly, not quoted in the OED at present.)

Of course, the much-loved creator of Tess Durbeyfield and Jude Fawley isn’t the only confusable name in the OED. Discovering the identity of an author, in any ambiguous situation, is only a matter of a couple of clicks if you’re signed-in to www.OED.com, but here are a few other names that might require a second look…

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill was once voted the Greatest ever Briton, was Prime Minister twice, and even found time to the win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s also quoted in the OED over 100 times, as supporting evidence for words from balloteer to right wing. Those aren’t particularly surprising entries to be associated with a renowned politician. You might pause for a moment, though, when confronted with the idea that Sir Winston Churchill , KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, Hon. RA currently provides the earliest example of the word fluffily: ‘Miss Cassandra was arrayed fluffily in cool, pink lawn.’ It’s a useful word, but not a very prime ministerial one.

Well, as you probably suspect by now, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had nothing to do with it. Instead, it appears in the 1906 novel Coniston by American writer Winston Churchill (1871-1947). Although he has been overshadowed by his namesake, particularly in the UK, this Winston Churchill was once a bestselling novelist – for instance his second novel, Richard Carvel, sold as many as two million copies which, at the time, equated to about one for every forty people in America. Richard Carvel, incidentally, is quoted under OED entries for gaming, primping, rococo, and punch (the drink) which, all in all, makes it sound rather a thrilling read – although perhaps not on quite the same level as ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’…  As a tip, whenever the prime minister appears in the OED citations, he is listed as W.S. Churchill – for Winston Spencer-Churchill.

Elizabeth Taylor

If someone told you they’d spotted a quotation from Elizabeth Taylor in the OED, chances are you’d be thinking of Dame Elizabeth Taylor, late star of stage and screen, famous for winning two Academy Awards and having many marriages. At present, however, the actress known for Cleopatra, National Velvet, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn’t actually make an appearance as the author of any quotations cited in the OED. Instead, the quotations which appear under the name ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ (of which there are more than fifty) come from the pen of a 20th-century novelist and short story writer whose recent biography by Nicola Beauman was, indeed, entitled The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

Much admired by critics, she is still considered something of a cult favourite. Taylor’s use of language is always precise and observant, often domestic-focused but also occasionally a little daring. This combines to make her a useful source of language, and her writing appears in the OED as the current earliest evidence for duffle-coated, lax (as an abbreviation of lacrosse) and even the verb balls (‘to make a mess of, ruin’) which appeared in her 1947 novel A View of the Harbour.

Which Dickens?

While we’re talking about novelists, it’s worth mentioning that Charles isn’t the only Dickens who’s quoted in the OED. Although the much-loved author of lengthy Victorian novels is heavily represented (as a quick sampling, he is quoted to support words as disparate as leg-iron and ickle, beef-faced and finishing school), his great-granddaughter Monica Dickens has made a sizeable contribution herself. Like her famous relative, she was also a writer – while he opted for lengthy books filled with grotesques, surreal humour, and social commentary, Monica Dickens is best-known for a series of highly amusing autobiographical books about being a cook, nurse, and reporter (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, and My Turn To Make The Tea). Monica Dickens’ work is currently cited in 170 OED entries, and provides, at present, the earliest known examples of such common expressions as cauliflower cheese, victory sign, and preggers – all of which would probably leave Charles Dickens rather nonplussed.

As with all these ‘confusable names’, of course, the identity of the author in question is easy to discover on the OED website – clicking on any title will bring up a popup containing information including the full name of the cited author, links to other quotations of theirs in the OED, and a link to their entry in the ODNB, should they have one. Correct sourcing is signposted clearly, and if the dates aren’t a dead giveaway (spotting a ‘Shakespeare’ quoted for the word narcolept from a 1993 novel, for instance, is a good clue that we’re not talking about the Bard) then you won’t struggle to clear things up. Once you’ve logged in, the OED Online advanced search function also now permits users to enter the full name of any author which should help clear things up. But it’s always worth double-checking – lest you come away thinking, for instance, that the UK’s most respected Prime Minister gave the world not only such inspirational lines as ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’, but also, with equal verve, fluffily.

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