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Oxford English Dictionary calls on U librarian for help

By July 5, 2018September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Jon Jeffryes

Malaika Grant

Malaika Grant
(photo by Karen Carmody-McIntosh)

The Oxford English Dictionary currently believes that a Minnesota publication has the distinction to be the first to use the term “follically challenged” — a comically formal alternative to “bald” — in print. Confirming this unique place in lexicographic history proved to be a circuitous puzzle and University of Minnesota Libraries’ Malaika Grant led an exciting hunt for proof.

The search begins

As librarian for the subject of English, Grant often fields questions from students and researchers that take her to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for answers.

But on this day it was the OED that was reaching out to Grant.

The OED was working on their entry for the adjective “follically challenged” — part of their work included searching Google Books, a database created by Google that searches the full text of every book scanned into their online library, to find examples of usage to include in the draft of their entry.

“What makes the OED unique among English dictionaries is that in addition to the definition and etymology of a word, we also provide illustrative quotations — from the first use we have found of a word, up until the present day, if applicable,” says Catherine Henstridge, Senior Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.

Google Books brought back a result earlier than any the OED had yet located, but it was only a snippet view of the text and the citation listed was missing information. Before they could move forward with their entry they needed to verify their findings with a print version. Looking at the citation, they saw that the print copy originally came from the University of Minnesota Libraries.

The OED’s story of creation has recently been told in the popular history books, The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. That history now includes Malaika Grant.

A clue: ‘1 Tuesday’

'Scene' publication snippet

Snippet from “Scene” television guide from Twin Cities Public Television that includes reference to “follically challenged” in the description.

Originally Grant received only the citation information listed on the Google Books entry. It listed “Scene, Channel 2 and 17, Volume 16, Issue 1 – Volume 17, Issue 1” Grant found the print version of Scene, a TV guide for Twin Cities Public Television, and tried to find the example in the print versions. But paging through the journal, no match was found.

'Scene' publicationGrant replied with a request for more information. Soon she had the same snippet view that had originally sent the OED in her direction. On that entry was a listing that read, “1 Tuesday” and showed “follically challenged” mentioned in a description of the science program, Nova.

With that additional clue Grant started cross-referencing old calendars from the early 1990s for months that started on a Tuesday. She was then able to take those dates to the print holdings of Scene and see if any of its listings matched. That creative approach successfully verified the quotation. Grant was able to scan the print version of the entire page and send it as proof to the OED of Minnesota’s distinctive place in word history.

‘Posterity will be indebted to you’

Grant notes that since the Libraries started digitizing their print holdings in Google she’s seen an uptick in questions seeking out rarities in our print collections.

“Google Books makes all this free text available for searching that wasn’t available before,” Grant explains, “it’s at least the third or fourth time that I’ve been contacted about some significant thing, a dictionary entry or something that was totally unfindable before. It’s always something local and we’re the only ones who have it.” 

But the OED work is special.

“It’s such a cool resource with so much history,” Grant notes, “to be able to put the pieces together and solve it is a really good feeling.”

“Thank you for your persistence,” OED Senior Editor, Henstridge wrote in acknowledgement of Grant’s work. “My apologies again that what I hoped would be a quick reference check proved to be such a prolonged search for you (although I’m very glad I did check). Your kindness is much appreciated and the OED and posterity will be indebted to you.”

The entry for “follically challenged” remains under revision and is still in draft form. As Henstridge notes, “We are not a publication known for its speed, so it may still be a little while until the ‘follically challenged’ entry is complete. I will let you know when it is, if you are interested, and if you and I are still alive by then.”

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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