On errors in the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is unequalled in the fields of English lexicology and etymology. However, several categories of errors exist in this dictionary.

The main one is due to the fact that the contexts of the quotations are not always taken into account. For example, in the OED (2nd edition, 1989), the phrase to see the elephant is defined as meaning

to see life, the world, or the sights (as of a large city); to get experience of life, to gain knowledge by experience.

The earliest quotation in the OED is from Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe expedition (1844), by George Wilkins Kendall:

There is a cant expression, ‘I’ve seen the elephant’ in very common use in Texas.

But the context of this quotation shows that to see the elephant means here, in reality, to get sick and tired of something.

Two other examples are from the entry P’s and Q’s (3rd edition, 2007). A quotation from Westward Ho (circa 1604), by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, is interpreted in the OED as meaning either “to be on one’s best behaviour” or “to be at one’s best, on top form” (the OED does not specify the precise sense of this particular quotation).

In fact, the context shows that, here, the original form of the phrase, the singular P and Q, is used in the context of sexual double entendres: while apparently referring to the progress of a married woman in learning to write, P and Q refers in reality to her sexual prowess with her lover.

In the same entry, the OED also misinterprets a quotation from The Life and Memoirs of Mr. Ephraim Tristram Bates, commonly called Corporal Bates, published in 1756; the dictionary indicates that, here, to mind one’s P’s and Q’s means:

to be careful or particular in one’s words or behaviour; to mind one’s manners.

But the context shows that the phrase means in reality to look after oneself.

Another category of errors is perhaps due to lack of coordination between the lexicographers working for the OED.

For example, in the 2nd edition (1989), the term kettle net, defined as meaning “a net formerly used in catching mackerel”, appears under two different headwords, of completely different meanings and etymologically unrelated:

kettle in the general sense of a vessel for boiling water or other liquids,

kiddle, a noun denoting “a dam, weir, or barrier in a river, having an opening in it fitted with nets or other appliances for catching fish”.

Under the headword kiddle, the OED quotes in the following manner Natural History of British Fishes (1880), by the English zoologist and author Frank Trevelyan Buckland:

The mackerel here [i.e. at Rye] are caught in large fixed nets called kettle-nets.

Oddly, the OED has not given the full quotation, which finishes with:

hence, probably, the phrase ‘What a pretty kettle of fish!’

This omission is unfortunate, because the phrase a pretty kettle of fish, meaning an awkward state of affairs, originally referred to a net full of fish, which, when drawn up with its contents, is suggestive of confusion, flurry and disorder.

It is also unfortunate that, in the OED, the phrase a pretty kettle of fish erroneously appears under the headword kettle, as a figurative use of a kettle of fish, meaning, literally:

On the Tweed, etc. A kettle of fish cooked al fresco, at a boating excursion or picnic.

Because most so-called ‘etymologists’ content themselves with copying what the OED states (as they consider it infallible), this has led to a phenomenon typical of folk etymologies, that is, stories fabricated in order to give a semblance of authenticity to erroneous theories, in this case stories desperately trying to prove the (non-existent) relation between a pretty kettle of fish and fish cooked in a kettle.

A different category of errors is the erroneous dating of quotations. A striking example appears under the headword clue; according to the 2nd edition (1989) of the OED, the current meaning of this word is first recorded around 1665 (it would be in fact 1628-29) in Journal of a Voyage into the Mediterranean, by the English courtier and natural philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-65). Unfortunately, the passage quoted by the dictionary is from a preface written… in 1868!


I have exposed other errors in the Oxford English Dictionary in:
the mistaken origin of ‘white elephant’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
a curious case of misunderstanding in the Oxford English Dictionary
mistaken etymology of ‘not to give a XXXX’ in the Oxford English Dictionary
The usual explanation of ‘Hobson’s choice’ is fallacious.

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