Adam’s unrecorded vocabulary

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

What else might OED3 quote from Adam’s Miscellany Poems? She has a number of seemingly eccentric uses, and on these OED3’s future judgement is difficult to predict. Such eccentricities are often included when the writer is famous, and passed over when less famous – for obvious reasons, as OED could not possibly include every example of unusual language. Sometimes, however, Adam comes up with unrecorded uses of language which seem likely to be found in other writers too. A case in point occurs in the first line of the volume’s first poem, ‘The Gratefull Muse’, in which the poet declares her purpose in writing her poems and characterizes herself as being at odds with ‘Statesmen’ and ‘Schools’:

Whilst Statesmen drain the Schools for Subjects new,

I will the Plan of private Life pursue.

To me it of far greater Value seems,

Than the most touring of scholastick Schemes (p. 1)

What is the meaning of drain in line 1? The entry for drain is as yet unrevised in OED3, but this could be a novel figurative use of OED1/2 sense 1, ‘to strain (liquid) through any porous medium’ (last recorded from Milton in 1667), i.e. Adam may mean ‘to sieve through the intellectual activity taking place in universities in search of new subjects’. Adam’s use post-dates OED’s current record, and is a so far unique example of the figurative use of this sense. Other possibly applicable definitions in OED are:

  • sense 6: ‘To withdraw the water or moisture from (anything) gradually by straining’
  • sense 7: ‘To empty by drinking; to drink dry’

for neither of which OED records figurative uses. Adam’s metaphor is vigorous and communicative, and it seems a fair guess that other language users will also have come up with figurative applications of this verb – so there is a prima facie case for including her example in OED when the entry is updated.

Reading the text of Miscellany Poems through in its entirety and checking it against OED throws up the following categories of words and usages which look eligible for inclusion in the Dictionary:

  1. Words or usages at present unrecorded in OED. It is perilous for non-lexicographers to make judgements about such matters: but none of the examples we offer in this category appear to be so eccentric as to be ineligible for inclusion in OED (on the contrary)
  2. Antedatings
  3. Postdatings
  4. Examples which plug the 18th-century or early-18th-century gap in OED’s quotation record
Mariner’s compass. Image taken from Edward R. Shaw, Discoverers and Explorers (New York: American Book Company, 1900). Source: Project Gutenberg

These four categories are represented in our next pages, in Tables 1, 2, 3, and 4a/4b respectively. Of particular interest are the large number of post-datings (Table 3), indicating perhaps that Adam was a conservative language user. By contrast, the many items in Tables 4a and 4b probably tell us more about the OED’s neglect of the 18th century than about Adam’s language preferences: here the quantity and variety of words for which she provides early 18th-century evidence are a good illustration, in individuated detail, of the consequences of OED’s problems in collecting material for this period (see our page 1700-1799 in OED1, under Period coverage).

Also notable are the Scottish words Adam on occasion favours, e.g. aliment, depute, regrate, and a handful of otherwise obsolete or near obsolete terms relating to ships and sailing: e.g. card, tackling. The latter probably derive from her family circumstances (her father was a shipmaker; see Jean Adam: Introduction and biography).

Last updated on 30 July 2019