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I'm interested in finding a (quite comprehensive) list of words, from which I can extract the dates of first appearance in English. This is so that I can be a /little/ more historically accurate in producing dialogue for a period-piece bit of writing.

For example, I can easily look up etymologies and English-first-use in various dictionaries, but I need to know the words in the first place, and it becomes a bit tedious.

If I can find a trustworthy digital-form dictionary, then I can write a program to simply order the words in order of their first appearance in English, and use that.

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  • I don't quite understand what kind of reference would not involve looking a word up. Even a chronologically ordered dictionary would require you to know if a word exists in the first place. – choster Mar 18 '18 at 15:54
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    That's a good point. It certainly would require me to know a word. My request is for a once-downloadable list, really (with definitions or not), which I can manipulate to my heart's content, without hitting an online server constantly. I could, for example, write a chapter of prose, and then simply automatically check it, flagging all words which weren't around or in common parlance before (say) 1900 or 1818 or whenever. Then I could easily choose words which /were/ around in the requisite timeframe. – crispr Mar 18 '18 at 15:55
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    Do note that probably no historical fiction set more than a few decades ago uses entirely accurate period English. I recently heard an interview with a linguist who was a script consultant on a recent BBC production set in the Elizabethan era, and she readily accepted that compromises were required to make the dialog compelling and comprehensible to modern audiences. The HBO production of John Adams, set a couple centuries later, made few accommodations to modernity but by the same token can be hard to follow even for native speakers. – choster Mar 18 '18 at 16:02
  • Yes. And I'm certainly aware that modern phrasings -- containing old words -- are a pitfall of mine. I'm no reliable scholar of the language, just doing the simplest due-diligence I can think of on my own! (I suspect, though have not checked, that "due-diligence" is one of those neologisms which I am wary of.) – crispr Mar 18 '18 at 16:07
  • @crispr The OED (and etymonline) have the most comprehensive and best dating of etymologies, and they also include phrases (which is just as important if you're trying to test contemporary acceptability for period pieces). But neither comes in a downloadable set of files to compute on. – Mitch Mar 18 '18 at 17:21
  • Many thanks to both choster and Mitch for their thoughtful responses. Perhaps my current best bet is to grab the downloadable English-language Wiktionary, and do some munging/parsing of that. If I have any successes or entertaining failures (originally used "fails", and then hated myself for it. What a trap!), I'll report back. – crispr Mar 18 '18 at 17:29
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    I'm not sure that your idea will be effective. Just having a word and a the first date it was used will not tell you if the word was used the way you're using at that date or not. – Laurel Mar 18 '18 at 17:37
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    Agreed. It might be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. – crispr Mar 18 '18 at 17:39
  • Which period? I find things like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales sound a little dated. And you will narrow your audience with a style that is too true to a given period. – Pam Mar 18 '18 at 20:24
  • For now, it's mid-18th to mid-19 century. So nothing too dated, and I won't be using Middle English, thank goodness. – crispr Mar 19 '18 at 5:02
  • You might consider using a few dictionaries from your time period; there are quite a few good dictionaries of slang and just general dictionaries from the 18th and 19th centuries; they're out of copyright, so freely available. There's a great list of such resources available in our Meta question on resources. – 1006a Mar 22 '18 at 23:15
  • 1006a: That list of resources is beautiful. Thank you for that! – crispr Apr 10 '18 at 6:19
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Lexicographers are not omniscient.

Dictionaries and other research publications provide not dates of first use or dates of earliest use but dates of earliest-known use, which may change if research uncovers even earlier uses.

This publication is available free of charge online:

Gold, David L. 2005. "An Aspect of Lexicography Still Not Fully Professionalized: The Search for Antedatings and Postdatings (With Examples Mostly from English and Some from Other Languages)." Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses. No. 18. Pp. 25-69.

  • Mr. Gold: Thank you. Your article is very interesting! I've so far mined it for "oryctognosy", which has perhaps made my week, if not my year. – crispr Apr 10 '18 at 6:25
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You seem to want a(n electronic) list of words with date of first appearance, in order to write a script that will tell you which words are in or out of style for a given date.

First, I don't think there is a good list out there. One could presumably extract such information from the OED, which has the most reliable 'first appearance' dates on each entry. But OED doesn't have a publicly accessible set of its data.

Also, I think what you're asking for is too simplified for what you want. words come in and out of fashion over time. Even if there is an inception date, you'd want the expiration date too, but that just belies the whole operation. Words don't all of a sudden one day pop into and then later out of existence. They gradually become popular and also lose popularity slowly.

Google Ngrams does a great job of showing popularity over time of given words. They give graphs of frequency of use over time. That is the kind of information you want. You have to use it word by word, but it is something.

But I've seen some automatic analyses of TV scripts (eg Downton Abbey) looking for anachronisms, maybe there's something there you can use.

  • Darn that OED! You make good points about expiration dates. My own preference is that certain initialisms and l33t txt spk would expire, but then I'm old and crusty and my word usements are perhaps not as cromulent as they once were. Thank you for the suggestions, and the prochronism website. – crispr Apr 10 '18 at 6:29

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