Assuming around 1800 is "par" for "earliest mention" of an English word by most of our esteemed GR (GR: General Reference) text, is this for any particular reason strongly cut off at that time?

I'm not entirely certain where to post this question, but it seems as if the questions with "oldest reference" seem to hover around late 1700s/early 1800s.

The point of this question is to find out if this is (or there is) a practical age limitation with respect to this on behalf of available texts to define the English Language or that a demarcation point had been defined where English began to be more formalized.

From a comment I posted:

Is the cut-off point of an etymology site related to the availability of a corpus or simply a factor of the state of the English language at the time? If the etymology sources are authoritative, is a source that predates the referenced source by 100 years or more valid?

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    ??? where did you see that limit? OED has dates going back to, what, before 1066? The year 1800 sounds suspiciously like the default lower limit to a Google NGram search. It allows much earlier dates, but Google books really aren't very rich before 1800 (i.e. the nber of books before then is really low). – Mitch Feb 11 '15 at 23:16
  • I'm not sure I understand what you're asking but Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary was surely a major factor in the standardization of Modern English with Webster following up in 1806, so there may be a sort of cut off date where you can say the word A was reliably documented as meaning X, Y & Z without having to check the original sources. – Frank Feb 12 '15 at 7:51
  • You need to explain to newcomers what GR stands for. (Not your fault that your question was migrated, but many users will be unfamiliar with the post dedicated to "general reference".) – Mari-Lou A Feb 12 '15 at 10:43
  • @Mitch As I don't have an OED, your comment would point to a source of a reasonable answer, but would OED (because of paywall?) be GR? – SrJoven Feb 12 '15 at 14:56

The earliest substantial English text is Cædmon’s Hymn, generally dated to 657-684. Here’s a ‘normalized’ text from a Harper College professor’s website. The interlineated ‘translation’ is my own using modern descendants of the OE forms where I recognized them; these are boldfaced.

Image of Caedmon's hymn and translation
(My genitives aren't always in the original; they're just there to help the sense. I greyed back onstælde/installed because install actually came into English from Mediaeval Latin via Old French; but the Latin word is constructed from a Germanic root cognate with ModE stall.)

As you see, some two thirds of the words are still in use. Not one article in the lot, either!

  • How likely would this be etymology-wise referenced for (random sampling of) the words in bold? I'm looking to find out if there's the corpus of text of a specific time frame that is most likely to be referenced as an etymological source for a given general reference. – SrJoven Feb 12 '15 at 17:50
  • @SrJoven Referenced by whom for what purpose? Toronto's currently moving towards a dictionary based on the entire corpus of known OE texts, and that corpus is available from them. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 12 '15 at 18:05
  • Referenced by whom? Among the more principal of the references, the ones that are suggested "consult these first" before asking. For what purpose? Answering questions in this SE. – SrJoven Feb 12 '15 at 21:25
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    @SrJoven Etymonline derives its etymologies from a number of scholarly works, each with its own corpus of sources. (The most important is probably the OED; the current version of that, which is about halfway through a complete revision, is now behind a paywall online, but the 1st edition is available at links listed here). As my previous comment suggests, the corpora behind major dictionaries are evolving rapidly, and I imagine that in another decade ... – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 12 '15 at 22:09
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    ... the earliest dates cited for many older words will have been pushed much farther back. And of course etymologies for 'base' morphemes reach even further back, to completely conjectural reconstructions of ancestral languages. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 12 '15 at 22:11

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