Seward’s letters

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Seward’s lexically innovative letters

Title page of Seward’s letters (Constable 1811). Source: Google Books

The vast majority of OED1’s quotations from Seward – around 230 out of just under 240 – are from prose sources. Of these 230, a handful come from her biography of Erasmus Darwin and almost all the remainder from her letters, mostly quoted from Constable’s six-volume collection of 1811 but very occasionally from other sources (e.g. Polwhele’s Traditions and Recollections).

The first question is why these quotations should have got into OED in the first place, given the Dictionary’s almost complete lack of interest in Seward’s poetry. It is always possible that a particularly enthusiastic reader for OED1 worked through Constable’s edition, excerpting as she or he went. Almost no mention of Anna Seward has been noticed in the OED archives to date (i.e. Oxford University Press’s own collection of letters and papers relating to the compilation and publishing of the OED from its earliest days), so there is no positive evidence of this.1 But since comparatively little archival evidence survives for the management and distribution of the vast quantities of reading done for the first edition of OED, we can’t rule out this explanation (for some surviving material, see our pages on OED1’s compilation and FJF’s notebook).

However, if we look through the list of entries for which Seward is quoted, as identified in electronic searching of OED, a particular characteristic leaps to the eye: many of the words are striking and unusual. This feature on its own, we might imagine, would make them especially eligible for inclusion.

To make the point, here is a list of 23 uncommon-looking locutions taken from a sample of just 50 quotations from Seward altogether (the first 50 occurring in the OED, i.e. listed in alphabetical order of the word illustrated):2

Uncommon words included in OED1: Seward Table 5
WordDate and source (as given in OED)
addio, int.1789A. Seward Let. 5 Feb. (1811) II. 23
authorism1805Miss Seward in Trad. & Recoll.
concave, v.1795A. Seward Lett. 16 Nov. IV. 118
crescent, v.a1809Miss Seward Lett. VI. 195 (T.)
Dantean, a.1785A. Seward Let. 25 Aug. (1811) I. 77
drop-bolt1786A. Seward Lett. I. 225
dupism1798A. Seward Lett. (1811) V. 171
elapse, n.1793A. Seward in Parr's Wks. (1828) VII
freightless, a.1795A. Seward Lett. (1811) IV. 94
ghostism1798A. Seward Lett. (1811) V. 176
girlism1788A. Seward Lett. (1811) II. 186
Gothicize, v.1798A. Seward Let. 2 Oct. (1811) V. 155
gradatory, a.1793A. Seward Lett. (1811) III. 202
grandmotherism, n.1806A. Seward Lett. (1811) VI. 324
harbourless, a.1795A. Seward Lett. (1811) IV. 107
high-toned, a.1804A. Seward Mem. Darwin 49
hostilize, v.1794A. Seward Lett. (1811) III. 376
hushy, a.1803A. Seward Lett. (1811) VI. 97
icteric, a. and n.1804A. Seward Lett. (1811) VI. 141
illocal, a.1804A. Seward Lett. (1811) VI. 180
immomentous, a.1805A. Seward Lett. (1811) VI. 236
impersonify, v.1804A. Seward Mem. Darwin 186
impersonize, v.1804A. Seward Mem. Darwin 188

If we look up each of the individual words for which Seward is cited in the OED itself, two further striking characteristics emerge:

  • 113 of her 237 quotations are for ‘first cited use’ in the OED: i.e., they are the earliest record the OED has been able to find for the particular word or sense they illustrate. (This is true not just of the obviously unusual words such as are listed above, but more ordinary ones like girlhood, impermanence, invalidism and many others)


  • of these 113 first cited uses, 44 are hapax legomena: i.e., Seward’s quotations furnish the only examples of use that the OED has been able to find

These are truly remarkable proportions, giving us valuable information about Seward’s use of language. While in writing poetry (see Seward’s poetry) she employed highly conventional diction, in writing letters she was much more innovative.

Any reader will feel that the exploratory, often exuberant use of language in the letters makes them immensely readable and enjoyable (in contrast to the clogging effect of the ornamented and archaic diction of the poems), and suspect that Seward is exploiting the language resources of her day with some creativity. Indeed, Seward herself often acknowledges this when she introduces a novel word with a phrase such as ‘if I may be allowed to coin that epithet’ or ‘if I may be allowed to coin a word, which is lawfully compounded’ (used of hushy and illocal respectively, nos. 12 and 13 in our list of Seward’s hapax legomena as recorded in OED). OED’s evidence on the originality of Seward’s epistolary diction furnishes a demonstrable objective basis for this impression (see further Seward’s own view on the value of neologisms, quoted on our next page on her first quotations, at the heading Seward’s examples).

Of course, at any stage new evidence may come to light from other sources, showing that other writers as well as Seward used these words either before she did or at the same time: OED can never be sure that it really has identified the first (or the sole) example of use. The cumulative nature of its evidence on Seward, however, points clearly to a consistent level of linguistic innovation on her part.

See further our pages on Seward’s First quotations and Hapax legomena respectively.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Thanks to OED’s archivist, Beverley McCulloch, for this information
  2. Searching on 29 October 2009 on the OED2 Advanced search page in QUOTATIONS containing (‘A Seward’ in QUOTATION AUTHOR or ‘Anna Seward’ in QUOTATION AUTHOR) or ‘Miss Seward’ in QUOTATION AUTHOR.