-1

I've never thought about the definition of when a word was invented. I've just joined Stack Exchange and am wondering how etymologists define first use.

etymnonline dot com has

image (n.) c. 1200

image (v.) late 14c

and

imagine (v.) mid-14c.

That is a gap of 200 years.

I imagine (sic) that people were imagining since very early times and probably talking too.

Do etymologists refer to when a word was first written, rather than when it was first used (spoken)?

9
  • 5
    Not my downvote, but it comes down to what qualifies as an attestation. If someone with "street cred" writes an essay for the Sunday paper and says, "I can guarantee you we used [ some word ] when I was kid in the late 1940s early 1950s to mean such-and-such, and then letters to the editor arrive corroborating that claim, a dictionary might date the origin as "circa 1950" even if the first written attestation did not appear until, say, 1966. It's an editorial decision. For words from the middle ages, how would anyone know?
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 16:37
  • That said, when there's evidence of, say, a bunch of similarly structured verbs attested from the 9th century being attested uninterrupted through to the 15th century, all going through similar sound changes, but there's one verb of the same ilk that is attested in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries but unattested in early medieval texts, an etymologist might well posit the unattested form, putting an asterisk in front of it as a sign that it is unattested, but indicating that there's hardly any doubt it did exist.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 16:44
  • The historical record of the language is imperfect. Many manuscripts were destroyed, intentionally or unintentionally. medievalists.net/2021/12/destruction-medieval-manuscripts/….
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 16:49
  • Trustworthy resources need to be evidence-backed. Records showing earlyish uses as hard copy may be available, but people weren't writing down 'I heard this word fifty years ago', to the best of my knowledge. And I think most early dates in etymological records are hedged as 'first known use'. Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 17:03
  • 4
    And always "first written use". Because all you can refer to is written sources. From these we can infer other words and sounds and sound changes, but it all starts with recent written instances. "Recent" as in "5000 years ago or less", while the first use of spoken language would be something like "3,000,000 years ago or less". Does it make a difference? Some would suggest it does. Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 18:18

3 Answers 3

3

It comes down to what qualifies as an attestation. If someone with "street cred" writes an essay for the Sunday paper and says, "I can guarantee you we used [ some word ] when I was a kid in the late 1940s early 1950s to mean such-and-such, and then letters to the editor arrive corroborating that claim, a dictionary might date the origin as "circa 1950" even if the first written attestation did not appear until, say, 1966. It's an editorial decision. For words from the middle ages, how would anyone know?

That said, when there's evidence of, say, a bunch of similarly structured verbs attested uninterrupted from the 9th century through to the 15th century, all going through similar sound changes, but there's one verb of the same ilk that is attested in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries but unattested in early medieval texts, an etymologist might well posit the unattested form, putting an asterisk in front of it as a sign that it is unattested, but indicating that there's hardly any doubt it did exist.

The historical record of the language is imperfect. Many manuscripts were destroyed, intentionally or unintentionally.

1
  • Sometimes the OED's first-known-use quotation (for many a technical term, for instance) seems to be formally introducing the word to the world, defining it, and at least implicitly claiming authorship of it as a coinage. Other times that first known use seems to presuppose the word's familiarity from oral use. Tummy, for instance, first saw print in a humorous 1867 poem by W. S. Gilbert, but required no elucidation there, as already long in use in children's nurseries. I know of no resource that authoritatively or systematically distinguishes between these classes, though. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 21:48
1

Dates like this refer to the first known instance of a word being used in writing. They are not intended as an indication of when that word (or another word from which it is descended) might have been used for the first time.

The Etymonline entry that you quote gives the first known occurrence in writing of image as a noun (c. 1200) and as a verb (late 14c), and of the related verb imagine (mid-14c). What it does not do is put a date on when the ancestors of those words were used (except in the implied sense that it was before that earliest date).

This is because although we know that the origin of image is Latin imago, and although comparative linguists have good reasons to believe that the Proto-Indo-European root of that word was *aim- (thought to have had the meaning of ‘to copy’), we have no way of dating when words from that root were first uttered, except to say that it happened thousands of years ago.

0

Dates like these generally refer to written usage since that is generally the only kind of evidence that we have. (Speech by itself doesn't leave documents behind.) So these can be viewed as providing an upper limit to the actual date when a word was first used.

The fact that people have been imagining a long time doesn't mean they were using the word "imagine".

1
  • There is a lot of recorded spoken language, in TV, films, radio, music, podcasts, etc, in some cases going back to 1930s cinema or even further, but I don't see it being cited much in dictionaries. Even with recently-coined words, dictionaries seem to cite written sources, even if it's only an internet discussion board. I wonder if that's just because it's easier to search text, there is still more text than recorded speech, or there is another reason.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 10:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.