Somewhere out there, during the early days of networked communication, somebody probably complained about a lengthy term and decided to do something about it. At that point, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are guessing, “electronic mail” became “email” (or “e-mail”), and a cornucopia of e-prefixed words would follow over the next few decades.
Thing is, for years, the OED editors have been asking the public to help them find documentation of the first time “email” was used — and they still haven’t had any luck.
The OED recently renewed its plea for help in tracking down documentation of the first time someone wrote “email” or “e-mail” instead of “electronic mail.” The appeal has been online for three years — and the word has been an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1989 — but the OED still doesn’t have a verifiable instance of the first time someone used it.
“You’re tempted to think that someone said in some message board, ‘I’m tired of typing out electronic mail. Can we just call it email?’ ” Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, told The Washington Post. “Something that’s truly unique like this, you expect there to be a single person.”
Right now, the earliest use the editors can find dates to 1979. And that citation comes from a headline in a scientific journal:
1979 Electronics 7 June 63 (heading) Postal Service pushes ahead with E-mail.
“Sometimes, you think, we haven’t had any results because there’s nothing earlier out there,” Martin said. “For email, there are a couple reasons that seem important to continue to look at it.”
For one thing, Martin explained, the citation simply “doesn’t look like a coinage.” To the 1979 readers of Electronics, the idea that “e-” meant “electronic” would be a large leap to make. The prefix simply didn’t exist before email, Martin said, and it seems very unlikely that a journal would decide to go ahead and put “e-mail” in a headline if readers weren’t already at least somewhat familiar with the term.
“It’s not something you’d expect people to understand if it wasn’t already in use,” Martin said.
These OED appeals, in some form, date back to the 19th century origins of the dictionary. The earliest printed appeals asked the public to read specific books and look for quotations for any notable words. Soon, the dictionary’s first editor, James Murray, tweaked his strategy: He sent out lists of words for which he needed quotations.
“We will from time to time print and circulate among our existing Readers lists of the verbal desiderata discovered in the course of arranging and working up the materials already in hand,” reads an appeal pamphlet from 1879.
The pamphlet explains that the dictionary’s editors were looking for quotations for three reasons: First, some words don’t have any quotations, or only one, and the editors simply need more; second, some words need more current quotations; and third, as is still the case with many of today’s online appeals, the editors need to find earlier — ideally the earliest — use of a particular word. The process of finding that first quotation is called “antedating” by lexicographers.
The appeals have continued on and off since the 19th century. Before going online, Martin said, editors used paper newsletters to publicize their latest appeals.
Since 2012, the OED’s editors have been appealing online for help tracking down early quotations of words, old and new, when editors don’t think they have the full story of a word’s origins and usage. Basically, the editors ask readers to leave comments— available for the public to read — directing editors toward any leads or quotations that might fit the bill. The editors respond to those requests as they come in, also in the comments, and when the word is successfully antedated, the appeal is closed.
The editors also found out something very surprising about “skive,” a World War I British slang word meaning to evade duty. Before posting the online appeal, the editors assumed the word came from conversations between British and French troops, since the French word “esquiver” has a similar meaning. The earliest citation supporting that usage dates to 1919.
However, one reader found a citation from 1918 — in a student publication from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. Yes, in America. That discovery “raises more questions than it answers,” Martin admits. But it does demonstrate just how helpful these online appeals can be. Sometimes, readers will look in places the editors haven’t even considered.
So if the online appeals process has been a pretty interesting success overall for the OED, why is “email” still languishing?
Often, for words coined in the age of networked communications, editors and interested readers know that the first usage is somewhere out there, on a publicly accessible message board, or in a tweet, or a blog post. But for “email,” the editors need to access a different sort of networked world. “It’s a lot harder for email; it’s so early in the history of networked computing conversations,” Martin said.
The appeal has generated a few responses, Martin added, but nothing verifiable yet. It’s likely that the antedating they’re looking for lies in archived messages held by someone who was involved in the creation or the early implementation of what we’d recognize as emails today. If that’s the case, the editors are hoping one of those people will hear that the OED is looking for them and respond. “In a way, that’s what the appeal is intended to do: To request that any of those people who were involved in those things step forward,” Martin said.