Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO):The words and images of history

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Fred R. Shapiro
Yale Law School

In 2001 I wrote in this journal, “Electronic resources presenting text and images through the World Wide Web are rapidly revolutionizing the study of history.”  Now, in 2004, the revolution has reached a mature phase.  Perhaps the most exciting of the online history resources is Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

ECCO Part I is the most ambitious digitization project ever undertaken.  It makes available digital facsimile images of every significant book published in Great Britain between 1701 and 1800, as well as thousands of important works printed in the Americas.  The completed database will include over 33,000,000 pages and nearly 150,000 books and span subjects including history, geography, social science, fine arts, medicine, science, technology, literature, language, philosophy, religion, law, and general reference.  Every word or phrase in this comprehensive electronic library is searchable (capabilities of searching a variety of sophisticated “metadata” fields, and of browsing texts by author or title, are also available).

The power of ECCO’s full-text searching can be spectacularly illustrated by using it to trace the origins of words and phrases.  For over 150 years, the Oxford English Dictionary has pursued the world’s greatest humanities research project, with thousands of editors and contributors employing the most diligent and ingenious methods to ferret out the earliest known usage of each term in the English language.  Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman recently made the best-seller list chronicling one of the most remarkable stories of OED research into “first uses.”

In literally a few seconds of searching, however, ECCO can often outdo OED first uses and furnish earlier evidence from eighteenth-century books.  The richness of ECCO’s contents and the power of its ability to search full text of books for occurrences of desired words make for an extraordinary tool for linguistic investigations, and, of course, for countless other researches. I asked John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, to summarize how the OED staff is using ECCO in their work.  Here is his answer:

 “Some commentators have suggested that quotation evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary is less comprehensive for the eighteenth century than for other periods. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that ECCO has proved an extremely productive resource over the short time it has been available. Of the six hundred illustrative quotations already added to the dictionary database to date from ECCO, around one third represent antedatings of the first-known occurrence of a word or sense previously recorded in the OED. Impressive examples found so far come from the world of medicine (oesophageal,  antedated from 1807 to 1786; pelvic, antedated from 1828 to 1799), botany (three out of the four senses of peduncle have been antedated), textiles (organdie, antedated from 1785 to 1714), and architecture (periperal, antedated from 1826 to 1768).

ECCO is also a rich source of documentary evidence for informal varieties of English.  A notable example is the following:

"Richard Low .. and his Camrade being one Day very Peckish, and meeting with a Boor in Ghent loaded with Capons.., they struck up a Bargain with him for half of them."

Alexander Smith, History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men (ed. 2, 1714)

This use of the adjective peckish antedates the previous first-known example, an entry in Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by just over seventy years. Another area of particular strength, as compared with other resources, is in words loaned from non-European languages, which occur frequently in the types of texts (letters and memoirs, for example) found in the collection. Examples of such terms for which new first examples have already been found include Padouca, ongon, obeah man, and occo. As we continue with the process of revising the OED, our ability to search ECCO will undoubtedly lead to considerable gains in our understanding of eighteenth-century English.”

I have used ECCO to improve upon the historical record for many important terms.  For example, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the word baseball is dated 1815.  An ECCO search, however, retrieves the following much earlier example from a children’s book:

"BASE-BALL.  The Ball once struck off, Away flies the Boy To the next
destin'd Post, and then Home with Joy."
    A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and
Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly

    The OED’s earliest record of the word librarian is from 1713, but ECCO yields an occurrence twelve years prior to that:

"The Library is furnish'd already with Books, to almost the number of 4000, and will daily
encrease by an annual Salary of 116 l. per Ann. settl'd upon it for that purpose, and for the maintenance of a Librarian."
Herman Moll, A System of Geography: or, a New & Accurate Description of the Earth in All its Empires, Kingdoms and States (1701)

I set forth below a few other interesting “antedatings” from a variety of subject areas, that I have discovered with ECCO full-text searches.  The date of the OED’s first use for the term is given in parentheses.  My results, through the lens of studying the history of words, suggest the limitless potential of ECCO for studying the history of culture and ideas.

biographer (OED 1715)
"The Author's descending too particularly to the lesser and more private Actions of Mankind; which makes him fall from the Majesty of a Historian to that of a Biographer."
    Laurence Echard, The Roman History (1702)

biology (OED 1819, in another sense 1813)
"Physiology therefore - or more strictly biology - by which I mean the doctrine of the living system in all its states, appears to be the foundation of ethics and pneumatology."
Thomas Beddoes, Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, Principally from the West of England (1799)

dentist (OED 1759)
"Bouchard is the Name of the Dentist she employed at Bourdeaux, already mentioned."
Mainie Anne Cathcart, Copies of Miss Cathcart’s Letters to Sir John Houstoune, Since She Came Away from Him (ca. 1746)

engineering (OED 1720)
"The 17th of this Month proved fatal to the famous Lieutenant General Coborn; who, without Vanity, was the ablest Engineer in his Time: He rose by small Gradations in the Military and Engineering Arts, to the high Posts he so worthily filled, under the States-General."
David Jones, A Compleat History of Europe: or, a View of the Affairs Thereof, Civil and Military, for the Year, 1704 (1705)

guillotine (OED 1793)
"They have added the force of enthusiasm to the fury of an unholy war; a sort of anti-crusade, in which they bear the guillotine against the cross."
 Debates on Mr. Ponsonby’s Motion for a Parliamentary Reform  (1790)

oxygen (OED 1790)
We have acted agreeable to these conditions by adopting the word oxygen, deriving it as Mr. Lavoisier proposed ... We shall therefore say that vital air is oxygen gas, and that oxygen unites with sulphur.
Louis Bernard, Baron Guyton de Morveau, Method of Chymical Nomenclature (1788)

revolutionary (OED 1774)
"No Roman Catholick was oblig'd to oppose the Revolutionary Measures in Conscience,
much less in Policy."
Alexander Ramkins, The Memoirs of Majr. Alexander Ramkins, a Highland-Officer, Now in Prison at Avingnon (1719)

vampire (OED 1734)
"It is some Satisfaction to him [a Dutchman] to know that he is not giving from his Family what he has earned with the Sweat of his Brows, to ... gratify the Rapine of a fat-gutted Vampire.
Charles Forman,  A Second Letter to the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole (1733)

Fred R. Shapiro is Associate Librarian and Lecturer in Legal Research at Yale Law School and the editor of  Yale Dictionary of Quotations (Yale University Press).

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