Thursday, February 11, 2010

Test Drive of My New Toy!

My ex-husband Henry (aka Brit Hub 1.0) gave me an early birthday present: OUP's Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It even comes with a poster!  (A poster I have no wall space for, but for word geeks like us, it's still cool to get a poster.)

Let's take it for a test drive, okay?  I'm going to link back to a post I did ages ago on some words and phrases in a historical novel that struck me as anachronistic.  If I understand how to use my new toy, I should be able to look up words that would have been period-appropriate for the Regency Era.  Here's the post I wrote, and here are the words I looked up:

  1. Dog show (clearly meaning a confirmation show for dogs) 
  2. Bivouac 
  3. Bleeding heart (in the sense of being soft hearted or overly generous toward others) 
  4. Lame duck (in the non-political sense of someone down on his luck) 
  5. Driveway

This is actually a tough lot, but let's see if the HTOED is up to the job.

1.  Dog show

Immediately I see that this is a three-step process.  On the poster, I see that Animals are categorized under Life and have the coding 01.02.06  (If you get one of these, I predict you will find yourself muttering "oh one oh two oh six oh eight oh three oh four oh one" -- you'll see why in a moment -- and so I would recommend that you either warn your loved ones that you will be doing this or do it in an empty room.  It just sounds weird.  Like secret incantations, or the ramblings of a poor unfortunate let out on a day pass from the institution...)

The entire second volume is the index.  I looked up "dog" and found no reference to "show."  Dead end.  I then looked up "show" and found more than a solid column of these multiple-number references just for the word "show" alone.  Then it hit me.  Now I see why the poster is so important.  The reference numbers are in order, and sure enough there's one in the 01.02.06 section!  Specifically,  (See, the muttering makes sense now.)

I go there and find that is (n.) Domestic animal and has a long column of stuff.  I look for 03.04.01 and find
Domestic animal . . . display show 1886 (dial.); 1886 (dial.)

which I take to mean that the word "show" in the sense of the display of a domestic animal (such as a dog) dates back to 1886, when it was used in two dialects (but they don't say which).  (However, it could mean that referring to a specific animal as a "show dog" might date back to 1886.  There is some ambiguity here.)

My original post quoted Wikipedia as having the first confirmation dog show in 1859 -- which rather prompts the question: If the first one was held in 1859, what was it called if not a "dog show?"  And then I wonder if maybe I got this all wrong and should have parsed the question differently.  But as this strongly suggests that dog shows as we understand them did not exist, I suspect the hero would do better simply to say something mean about the dog's appearance.

2.  Bivouac

All of 03.03 is Armed Hostility, so I'm going to guess that I'll find "bivouac" under 03.03.10 Military life/service.  But I needn't have worried; there are five (!) entries for "bivouac" -- three are nouns and two are the verb form.  What I'm looking for is a noun meaning temporary living site occasioned by war.

The first noun is this one (
Camping/encamping . . . without a tent bivouac 1853-1872 (transf.)

But I don't think our hero was talking about encampments without tents, so moving on...

Next entry is
Action/duty of sentry/picket . . . night watch bivouac 1706-1772

Again, not the meaning in our case.  One more noun to check:
Quartering . . . temporary/without tents bivouac 1811-

Bingo!   That's our winner.  But I'm curious about this "without tents" business -- and so maybe I'd not use the word bivouac if I was talking about an encampment that did have tents.  (Encampment is always safe:  it dates back to 1686 - .)

And did anyone else notice that my initial guess was wrong?  I found the desired meaning of "bivouac" under 03.03.09 Military administration and organization.  Oh well.

3.  Bleeding heart

A rather more abstract concept.  It could be under 03.01.05 Social attitudes.  Let's go see...

Nope.  This one was easy (once I stopped looking under "heart"): 02.02.25/09.04.02
Pity/compassion . . . Excessively sympathetic person bleeding heart 1958- (colloq.)

Just as the OED said the first time.

But here's where the HTOED can be useful.  Do we have anything we can use from before the early 19th century?  Well, "tender-heartedness" dates back to 1607; it doesn't quite have the same pejorative meaning, but with some characterization added, I think a skillful author could get there.

4.  Lame Duck

I have now learned to look the phrase up first, just in case it's already there.  And this one is, in fact there are five instances of "lame duck" as a noun.  Let's see if the poster can help me narrow down the one I want.  Looks like the first one is what I want:
Inability . . . lacking resource/initiative stick-in-the-mud 1733 - ; lame duck 1889

But I'll double check the others (I know I don't want the political sense of lame duck).  Lame duck also means one who is insolvent 1731; a company that is not profitable 1922; a damaged boat or vessel 1876; and finally, one who cannot be re-elected in the US 1863-.

So let's say you want to convey the pitiful objects of charity with a historically accurate word.  I'll try "charity" in the index.  How about "charity child" in use from 1714-1861?  I'd want to cross-check with the OED to see what all it means, but the beauty of it is that the modern-day reader would understand what this archaic term meant in context.  (And so what if it was used only when specifically referring to a child?  The OED might not have known about a colloquial use of the term in speech when referring to the sort of people a tender-hearted woman might want to help.  Could have happened...right?)

5.  Driveway
Road . . . leading to a house avenue 1654 - ; sweep 1797- ; drive 1816- ; wheel-sweep 1833 ; carriage-drive 1863 ; driveway 1870- (chiefly N. Amer.)

Pay-dirt.  This is why I wanted this book.  Because if the only word I can think of is "driveway," I look it up and I'm led directly to five other words, and their dates of usage.

Thank you, Henry!

P.S.  If anyone wants more specific information about this book, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.  Obviously most authors of historical fiction would use it more like a regular thesaurus: look up a general word and see if you can find the best alternative.  I didn't do that simply because I'm not writing a historical novel.


  1. We had bivouacs when I was in basic training in the military. We had tents though, so who knows what's up with that.

  2. Truly amazing: if I was an author of historicals, I would track this down like a rabid dog! I hardly ever post comments on the JoBev yahoo group but if Dick is around, I might have to ask him if he has it. Thanks for all that research!

  3. This is a truly must-have-fab resource!!

    But having said that, I'll tell you that reader perception also plays a huge part in word selection.

    Driveway will always sound too modern to most readers. As will car, which was short for carriage.

    So as a writer, even if it is correct, you have to be judicious in your choice.

  4. I can't tell you how much fun this is to have. And Keira is right -- even an awesome resource like this is no substitute for the authorial judgment that experienced writers bring to historical novels. Voice is way more important than lexicographical accuracy, and that's just not something you can look up in a book.

    (But it's still way cool.)


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