Words & Stuff

mmm: Whenwords (1999)

(20 June 1999)

Time for another dictionary game; this one can be played with either an electronic or a paper dictionary, though it works best with a paper one.

Most good dictionaries provide a date for each primary entry. The date given is generally the date of the earliest known written English document which uses the word.

(By the way, many people think that the definitions listed for a particular word in a dictionary are in order of most common use; that may be true in some dictionaries, but others (such as Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition) list definitions chronologically (the earliest definition comes first), and others (such as The American Heritage Dictionary, Second Collegiate Edition) order the definitions of a word "analytically, according to central meaning clusters." Whatever that means.)

This past weekend, Jim Moskowitz invented a game based on first-use dates, called Whenwords: one player says a word from the dictionary, and the other players all attempt to guess when that word was first used in English.

The game seems to work best at a fast pace and with a relaxed attitude toward competition. Don't spend too long thinking about your guess (a full round shouldn't take more than a minute or two); do encourage brief discussion among players about why a given period is or isn't likely; let players call out years when ready, rather than requiring them to all choose dates secretly and reveal them all at once; allow players to change their guesses if they wish. (If you prefer more formality, though, you can go around the circle and require each player in turn to state a date.) We played with the unstated rule that you can't pick the same year as someone else; that resulted occasionally in people's guesses being bracketed (as when one player guesses 1850, and the next guesses 1860, and the next guesses 1840; that makes it unlikely that the first player is going to be closest to the actual date), but nobody seemed to mind much when that happened. (And in one case of very close bracketing, the player who'd been bracketed had actually guessed the precise year, though you shouldn't expect that to happen too often.)

Each word-picker may take up to three or four turns before passing the dictionary along to someone else; or you can impose a more rigid scheme (such as the person who gets closest to the actual date becoming the next word-picker).

In playing this game, it helps to know a little about social, cultural, and literary history. If you think a particular word was probably coined by Shakespeare, you can guess 1600 or so; if you know when television became popular, you can guess that the term "prime time" wasn't in use before then (unless, of course, it was a radio term as well). But even for those of us who think we know something about word history, the results can often be surprising. When the word "zoo" was chosen, those of us who knew it was short for "zoological garden" figured it was Victorian (though I should have known that my guess, 1910, was much too late, since the word appears in a Milne poem), so learning that it first appeared in 1847 didn't surprise us too much. But we were rather surprised to learn that "zoological garden" first saw print only twenty years earlier, in 1829. We're still not sure what zoos were called before that.

While playing, keep in mind that sometimes words have very old meanings that are no longer in common use; also keep in mind that words which come directly from other languages may not have appeared in English until long after they were in common use in those other languages.

Here are some other words with interesting or surprising first-use dates. For the 20th-century words, try to peg the exact year.

doggie bag
entertaining [adj] (you'll have to click "entertaining" in the box and then click the Go To button to reach the adjective form)
ideological (also ideology)
physics (again you'll have to navigate manually to the specific word)
prime time
quilt [v] (you'll have to choose the verb entry by hand)
sex kitten
sex object
wave of the future

Unfortunately, most dictionaries don't provide nearly as much information about word history as some of us would like. I'd like to see a first-use date for each definition of a word, for instance, rather than just for the earliest definition. But I suspect the audience interested in such information is rather small.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>