Wills and inventories

The content below was originally written in 2006 and is as yet unrevised, though the links have been checked and updated.

In a number of articles, Edmund Weiner (Deputy Chief Editor of OED3) discusses and illustrates the sort of vocabulary that comes to light from the expanded reading of wills and inventories (see Weiner 1994, 1997, 2000a, 2000b). As he observes,

There is no guarantee that literary authors in any age before the nineteenth century would conveniently mention all the items and occupations of everyday life. Many of the concerns of the kitchen, the workshop, and the farmyard need never feature in literature at all. If we are to find attestations of this kind of vocabulary, account books, wills, and similar documents are much more likely sources. As one would expect, if the records exist, a word is likely to be attested in what one might call ‘ordinary’ everyday use before it appears in the ‘artificial’ environment of literary writing.

Weiner 2000a: 171

Such sources were not of course neglected in OED1; Weiner points out that the Durham account rolls were cited more than 700 times in the first edition of the Dictionary, and the Testamenta Eboracensia and Ripon Chapter Accounts more than 500 times apiece. Nevertheless, the lexical richness hitherto insufficiently tapped in non-literary writings is indicated by the large number of new quotations from inventories and other non-literary sources now flooding into the OED, for words such as

  • mullen, ‘A headstall or bridle for a horse’: OED1 provided two quotations, dated 1620 and 1879; OED3 has found a further five, from the late sixteenth to late twentieth centuries
  • ox-harrow, ‘A large and powerful harrow used on clay lands, originally drawn by oxen’: OED1’s four quotations dated from 1523 to 1813; OED3 now has nine quotations, dated from 1465 to 1925, including two from the seventeenth century which was previously unrepresented
  • pinsons, ‘pincers, forceps’: OED1’s quotation record stopped at 1610; OED3 has found five new quotations from the late seventeenth to the late twentieth centuries.

To date (July 2006), OED3 has more than doubled the number of quotations from inventories of one sort or another over the alphabet range so far revised, M-pleating. OED2 contains 397 quotations from inventories, often abbreviated to ‘Inv.’ or other forms, over this stretch of entries, to which OED3 has now added an additional 467, to make a new total of 864.

Last updated on 20 July 2019