This blog is a place to share some of my explorations into the earliest uses of various English words and phrases. The title comes from a book I read more than 30 years ago while in graduate school at Simmons College (now Simmons University) for a degree in library science.
The book was a biography of James Murray, the principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death in 1915, written by his granddaughter. In a way, it’s a biography of the dictionary, too, and of the way this classic work went about researching and bringing to light the life stories of words in the English language.
(You may be more familiar with another book about Murray: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. It’s more sensational — that’s what Winchester does — but ultimately far less revelatory about the professor — Murray — his work, or the dictionary that emerged under his leadership.)
There’s a little a bit of irony in my choosing the title of that book for my blog. The elaborate process that Murray developed nearly a century and a half ago to trace the earliest uses of words and phrases has long-given way to computer-aided methods for searching digitized content. That’s opened up new ways of identifying earliest uses, and brought new people into the process. (I’m hardly the only one.) And though I’m sure the OED gets updated, my own discoveries frequently predate those lists in the OED, sometimes by many years.
Still, an inspiration is an inspiration.
For more on my own research process, see Uncovering Earliest Uses.