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Some citations in the OED have an italic a before the year to indicate the year is uncertain, for example:

a​1556 N. Udall Ralph Roister Doister (?1566) iii. iv. sig. E.iijv, By gosse and for thy sake I defye hir in deede.

What does the a stand for in a​1556? In this case, the book was believed to have been published in 1556, or shortly thereafter, but not known for sure.

I don't think it's "about" because it's italic so possibly Latin, and italic c is also used for circa in other citations ("c​1315").

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In this case, I think the book is believed to have been published around 1566, but was written and performed several years before publication. My guess would be that the a means that it was written probably before, but no later than, 1556. –  Callithumpian May 21 '12 at 12:44
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

On the OED's homepage, there's a Helpful resources section, with some links, including one to abbreviations, and another to a symbol key:

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Either of those two links reveals:

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I believe that, loosely translated, it means sometime before, when the precise date is unknown.

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According to their public portion of the site an a before a date means "ante." So whereas c means something happened around a date, a means it happened before that date. In your specific instance, the use of gosse occurred before 1556 according to the quote entry.

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