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Why, after a quick lookup at the Google online library, allowing the browsing of the content of available books, can I inevitably find instances prior to the first known use in the dictionary of certain words?

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Mostly it'll be because the dates in google books aren't very reliable - witness all these instances of Internet before 1950 – FumbleFingers Oct 30 '11 at 16:36
I must confess: It was me who used my time machine, and wrote a book about Internet before 1750. – kiamlaluno Oct 30 '11 at 17:07
The OED, which has the best quality of "first known use" AFAIK, was populated by readers sending in slips of paper with early quotations they could find (plus its editors doing their best). This crowd-sourcing was the best they could do at the time. Take a look at Murray and the OED and OED#History, or the book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. – ShreevatsaR Oct 31 '11 at 3:18
I've also read great reviews of The Surgeon of Crowthorne (titled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in North America), a book about one of the most prolific contributors. (E.g. NYT: The Strange Case of the Madman With a Quotation for Every Word) As Hugo says, if you find earlier quotes that aren't (say) OCR errors, please do contribute. – ShreevatsaR Oct 31 '11 at 3:20
@Lrc007 Please will you share some of these words you've found with earlier first known use? Thanks! – Hugo Oct 31 '11 at 6:52
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Because the fist known use of a word is exactly that: the first known use. If and when they find an antecedent, they will usually update the dictionary entry.

There's no way for them to search every single book and document ever published, and not every publication still exists. However, more documents are being computerised and indexed so this makes it easier to find antecedents.

The OED are very happy to receive antedatings for inclusion in future editions, as well as new meanings. Check their FAQ to find out how to contribute.

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It appears that They haven't been very efficient. – Lrc007 Oct 30 '11 at 16:28
The editors of the OED have strict criteria for including words and citations. – Barrie England Oct 30 '11 at 16:47
"They haven't been very efficient." -- This assessment only seems plausible in our current world. Most of the work in finding first usages was done long before computers and digital texts, much less the internet making some of them available to casual users. – mgkrebbs Oct 30 '11 at 18:18
+1 for making me look up and learn another word, I'll let you guess which one. ;-) – Joachim Sauer Oct 30 '11 at 18:52
@JoachimSauer Antecedent/antedate? And I challenge the OP to antedate the late 14c. antecedent or find an antecedent of antedate prior to the 1580s :) – Hugo Oct 30 '11 at 19:20

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