An addendum on the history of the word “linguist” in the sense ‘interpreter’

One of my first publications was an article titled “Jurebassos and Linguists: The East India Company and Early Modern English words for ‘interpreter’” (abstract; full paper as a pdf). The article is a fairly straightforward and I admit rather light-weight investigation of the Early Modern English semantic field of ‘interpreter’, in which I note that instead of a single word (interpreter), there were several (interpreter, truchman, dragoman, linguist, jurebasso), the use of which depended upon, among other things, geographical and linguistic setting. (So that dragoman was used in the Arabic sphere of cultural and linguistic influence; and jurebasso where Malay was used as a lingua franca).

In any case, the article’s conclusions were in part a (good-natured) stab at the OED. Not because I want to detract from the worth of that lexicographical giant, but rather because antedating the OED is, at the end of the day, and as the OED stands at the moment, all too easy, and for those of us with an antiquarian-philological-lexicographical mindset, also quite good sport. And also, because in doing so I joined the ranks of previous scholars pointing out how the OED draws most of its evidence from literature (and a rather small canonical corpus at that), and that when you look outside that corpus of evidence, there are wonders awaiting the historical lexicographer. As my conclusion says quite plainly, the records of the early English East India Company are fantastic material for historical linguists (I continue pointing this out in everything I publish which draws on English East India Company material). (They’re fantastic sources for historians too, to be sure, but as far as I know, I still remain the only linguisticist-type to have used EIC materials).

But to move on to the point of this post:

The fate of one who engages in a game of one-upping with the OED is ultimately to be defeated at their own game.

That is to say, the reason why it’s easy to antedate the OED is that a substantial number of the entries still date from the first edition (1884-1928). A quick search in any old historical corpus will bring up antedatings to much of that material; and the same applies to the 1989 second edition which, although benefiting from the appearance of computers, still dates from long before EEBO-TCP, Google Books and other massive historical text resources.

Not so in the case of the third edition – begun in 2000, currently work in progress, and estimated to be completed by 2037 or so. In my article, I had of course used the OED entries to all the words for ‘interpreter’ I list above. Most of them came from the first edition of the OED, and linguist from the second. I concluded that whereas according to the OED, linguist wasn’t used in the sense ‘interpreter’ until 1711, in my material I found instances from a century earlier. However, if you now go to OED Online, you will see that linguist has since been updated to the third edition (September 2013). The entry now duly gives instances of linguist in the sense ‘interpreter’ from 1612 on. Overall too, the definitions given for linguist have been overhauled.

..I initially thought to subtitle this blog post, “Or, how OED antedated my antedating of OED’s definition of linguist” – but actually, in my article I wrote that “[t]he first occurrence of linguist in the sense of ‘interpreter’ is from 1610″. Which is two years earlier than the OED’s current earliest attestation. And going back to my notes, I find that this 1610 attestation comes from Nicholas Downton’s journal of the EIC sixth voyage. Here’s the extract and the reference:

As soon as the fleet anchored, the Governor sent an Arab to inspect the ships, who, on the following day, boarded the Admiral to inquire who and what they were; at the same time, “Jno. Williams and Walter the trumpetter, linguists” , with others, were sent on shore with a present to the Governor

– written at Aden, early November 1610
(Markham 1877: 168; emphasis mine)

Source: “Journal of the Sixth Voyage, kept by Nicholas Downton, 1610–1613”. In The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies: with abstracts of journals of voyages to the East Indies during the seventeenth century, preserved in the India Office: and the voyage of Captain John Knight (1606), to seek the North-west Passage. Ed. by Markham, Clements R.. London: Hakluyt Society, 1877. pp. 151–227. Available on the Internet Archive.

Rather unfortunately, Markham edited Downton’s journal quite heavily, so that much of it consists of paraphrase, with the occasional direct quote retained for flavour – as in the excerpt above. Yet luckily for me, the word linguists occurs in one of these direct quotes.

To sum up, then.

The new third edition of the OED does a fantastic job in charting the meanings and attestations of words in the English language across time. In doing so, it puts to shame lightweight excursion into historical lexicography like my 2009 article, namely those which do not properly consider the implications of their findings. I feel I should have been able to draw some firmer conclusions from my data, and not hedged my final thoughts. And also, I guess I ought to have done a more thorough job in searching through sources and also in documenting my sources and search results.

At the same time, despite all the new tools, resources and text databases, much of historical lexicography rests on serendipity. I came across an attestation of linguist in the sense ‘interpreter’ dating from 1610; the OED editorial team didn’t. (Incidentally, I’m sure a day or two of further digging would uncover earlier attestations.)

Finally, this case makes me feel that humanities scholars should aim to publish the data they draw on – when this requirement is applicable, of course. For instance in the case of my 2009 article, most of the texts are indeed available online as full texts, but largely as OCR’d from variable quality scans of the source books, which bring their own inaccuracies and complications. So publishing a KWIC list of my word searches (with references) would have been useful in terms of reviews of my work and future work drawing on my initial endeavours.

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