Tom Ruby being tricked by six friends into thinking he is suffering from the "sweating sickness", thereby missing his feast. Coloured line engraving, 1799, after John Nixon? (Wellcome Library)
By MICHAEL CAINES
It's no surprise that the discovery of that fine TLA "OMG" in a letter addressed to Winston Churchill has caught people's interest – or that there are more such amusing occurrences of modern coinages in olden times to be found. (E.g. "Face-book" in a newspaper from 1902.) Unusual words and seemingly anachronistic terms will always catch a reader's eye. An old favourite of mine is a latter-day cliché turning up in 1623, in a play by John Webster called The Devil's Law-case, which has a lawyer in court wheel round at the end of his cross-examination of a witness and say, Columbo-style, "One question more and I have done . . .". When the reply to the question is "Never", he adds, anticipating a technique for the stressing of key plot points in TV legal dramas, centuries later: "Are you certaine of that?"
Less eye-catching but more common are what French teachers might call faux amis – false cognates that tempt the unsuspecting student into thinking French is really English in disguise. Yes, le weekend really is the weekend, but no, justesse is not justice and a gland is not a gland. And so on.
Such confusion can also come between other languages, between British and American speakers, and between present-day readers and the literature of the past. Chaucer provides many examples, though their context tends to alert the reader to be careful: "The sentence of the compleynt" in "The Complaint of Mars" refers to the thrust, the general point, not, say, its grammar; and 300 lines into "The Parliament of Fowls", a "stare" (starling) amid the "crane", the "lapwynge" and the "kyte", is perhaps unlikely to be misunderstood.
Things get trickier the later you go, in a different way. Robinson Crusoe might seem to be comprehensible, plain sailing, but according to my Penguin edition, "affectionately" apparently means "with great feeling". That doesn't sound so very far removed from the modern meaning, but when, in the Further Adventures, the question is asked: "Are you willing to go?", it must be in the obsolete sense of the word that Defoe has the reply come back "very affectionately": "No . . . I am far from willing . . .".
Or consider the example of James Boswell, describing himself as "dull" in 1763 – he's accusing himself of lacking vivacity, I think, rather than interest.
Or of Emma Woodhouse, who comes to feel "all the honest pride and complacency [contentment, according to Bharat Tandon's edition of the novel] which her alliance with the present and future proprietor [of Donwell Abbey] could fairly warrant". Our view of Emma Woodhouse might be a little unfair on her if we thought she was admitting here that the prospect of marrying into the Knightley family simply left her feeling smug.
The list could go on. Generous, rude, keep, gay, queer, dull, forecast, happy: the game is the opposite of tracing "OMG" back through time; instead, it could be to see how late some now-outmoded usage persists, without cheating, of course, and raiding the OED first (or the HTOED second), just through an in-the-course-of-things reading of some relatively well-known novels, as well as the odd lesser-known work. Apart from anything else, they serve as a reminder that language and literary taste have subtler shifts than merely disposing of, or bringing into play, the flashy inventions.
No doubt the full lexicographical, etymological account of the phenomenon already exists; but that's beside the point. You only need to be a reader of Jane Austen (or Dickens or George Eliot) to experience it for yourself – not least in the potentially somewhat confusing jolt of discovering that one's father-in-law, in the nineteenth century, might actually turn out to be one's stepfather. OMG, indeed.