Q&A with OED contributor Fred R. Shapiro
One of the notable words in the June 2015 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) update was the term African American, which was antedated to more than half a century before the previous earliest citation. The discovery was made by longtime OED contributor Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School and the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, who spotted the term in an advertisement in a Pennsylvania newspaper, which ultimately led him to the sermon pamphlet using the word.
The term African American was in wide use in the US during the 19th century, the broad adoption of the word among black Americans dates from the 1960s and early 1970s. It gained wide acceptance following an endorsement from the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his 1988 campaign for presidential nomination. We asked Mr. Shapiro several questions about his research for the OED and other work that he has done.
OXFORD DICTIONARIES: How did you first get involved with the OED?
FRED R. SHAPIRO: While I was a student at Harvard Law School, I avoided my legal studies by haunting Widener Library and realized that they had a great collection of old books on sports and games in the basement. I became interested in researching the origins of some games, and found the word ‘tiddlywinks’ in one of the old books earlier than the OED’s first use. I sent this information to Oxford, and became intrigued with seeing whether I could do this kind of ‘antedating’ for other sports and games. I found that I could, and then expanded my researches to many other subjects.
OD: Can you tell us a little about the recent antedating of ‘African American’?
FS: I have hundreds of important terms that I am particularly interested in trying to antedate, and I regularly search such terms in online databases of newspapers, periodicals, and books, particularly databases that are subscribed to by Yale and that have added new content. I recently tried ‘African American’ in the America’s Historical Newspapers database, and was surprised to find it in a 1782 advertisement in a Pennsylvania newspaper, 53 years before the OED’s earliest citation. This led me to the 1782 sermon being advertised, which actually said ‘By an African American’ on the title page. There appears to be only one copy of the sermon in existence, at Harvard’s Houghton Library.
OD: What methods do you use to find antedatings in databases?
FS: When I first became a major contributor to the OED, as a 24-year-old in 1978, ‘antedating’ involved browsing a lot of books and periodicals in the stacks of very large libraries. For a couple of decades after that, I did such browsing at Harvard and the Library of Congress and Yale. But, also in 1978, I had encountered the Lexis database of legal publications, and suggested to the OED that Lexis could be used to trace early occurrences of legal terms and other words and phrases likely to occur in judicial reports. I did find antedatings from Lexis at this time, and that was undoubtedly the world’s first use of searchable full-text online historical text collections for historical lexicography. Now I do antedating almost entirely online. Because I am lucky enough to work at a major university, I have access to the great majority of the subscription databases that are useful for antedating. The online searching is far more efficient than the old browsing method, but sometimes I feel it is less gratifying, that one is employing the power of the database rather than one’s own talents.
OD: When you first began using databases for lexicographical research, there were very few such databases available, but the numbers have increased exponentially since then. Is it difficult to stay abreast of new resources?
FS: Yes, although as a librarian I can keep abreast of new databases and additions to existing databases pretty well. I used to keep a checklist of databases useful for historical-lexicographical research, but gave up a few years ago because there were so many of them.
OD: What are some of your favorite antedating contributions to the OED?
FS: Here are just a few of the more important terms I have antedated over the years: African American, computer, Frisbee, full monty, geology, hacker, hip-hop, homosexual, hooligan, hopefully, hot dog, librarian, linguistics, literary, movie, Native American, postmodern, preppie, Puritan, racism, robot, rock and roll, sexism, smog, sociology, software, Teddy bear.
OD: What types of items do you most enjoy researching?
FS: Although I enjoy researching significant terms from slang and popular culture, I probably most enjoy major terms from politics and the social and natural sciences — words and phrases that have shaped history and science and people’s lives.
OD: Do you have a ‘White Whale’ — an item with an uncertain origin that you are particularly interested in helping to uncover?
FS: I have done a lot of work, together with Bonnie Taylor-Blake, on the phrase ‘whole nine yards’. A few years ago there was an article in The New York Times about our discoveries and theories, but new findings are continually emerging that force us to rethink this ‘Holy Grail of American etymology’.
OD: You are also editor of both The Yale Book of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations – do you have any favorite quotations?
FS: I now do more research on quotations than I do on words and phrases, and to some extent have applied the methods of the OED to quotation dictionary compilation. Because I deal with so many quotations, it’s hard to pick a single favorite. One that I particularly like is Anatole France’s ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread’.