Words, words, words

I spent Monday in the OED archive in Oxford, looking at the suggestions sent in to the editors of the first edition of the Dictionary for uses of the words progressionist through to progressivism. It was an excellent day, which gave me lots of interesting leads to follow up – mostly by way of tantalising fragments of sources copied onto paper slips or torn from newspapers and books.

The archive is fascinating – one set of slips for suggestions which made it into the Dictionary (frequently with slightly more context than the finished entry) and another for those that didn’t. Inevitably, these are often the more interesting. There is also a third set of slips of early usages which were detached from the main collection when one of the editors went to Michigan and took some with him to help in his ongoing studies.

The editors of what was originally called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles started collecting definitions and usages in 1858 and filed them away in different pigeonholes, to be looked at in alphabetical order – ‘P’ wasn’t reached until the early twentieth century. The slips weren’t dated on receipt so many of them could have come in at any point during these decades.

I was pointed towards the OED archive by Thomas Dixon’s excellent study of The Invention of Altruism. While ‘progressive’ wasn’t a neologism in this period as ‘altruism’ was, it still seems to have been very much under contestation, as this quotation from The Speaker in 1896 suggests: ‘We should call their views Progressist if we could accept the word as English’!

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