Monday, February 28, 2011

The Very Useful People at Merriam-Webster

I recently found the message below in my personal email archive. Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact question that I asked the fine folks at Merriam-Webster back in 2002, but it seems that I was concerned about the earliest usage of the word for the performer of a activity being dated earlier (1930) than the word for the activity itself (1932).

From: James ████████████ <█████████>
Sent: Wed, March 13, 2002 11:55:16 AM
Subject: Re: striptease

Dear Jim,

As an historical research editor here at Merriam-Webster, I edit the
dates of first usage, and look for earlier examples of use. I
frequently deal with the troubling issue you bring up.

It seems like "stripteaser" implies "striptease." How could the name
for a doer of some action be formed, if that action hadn't been named?

The problem is that we are not dating when we surmise the word to have
come into use, but the first actual quote we can find of it in print or
manuscript. I can surmise "striptease" to have preceded "stripteaser,"
but the first citation of "stripteaser" we can find is from _Variety_
magazine (as are all the early citations for both words) from 1930,
while the first time "striptease" was used (in _Variety_) was 1936.

This may seem picky, but proof and specificity are absolutely necessary
in dating word usage, and for good reason. I have often found pairs of
words with similarly reversed-seeming dates, for which I have found
proof that the seemingly basic form was not formed first. This may (or
may not) even be the case with "striptease." _Variety_ used "the strip
and tease" as early as 1930. "Stripteaser" may have been formed directly
from "the strip and tease," and the latter only later compacted in
speech to "striptease."


James ████████████
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
47 Federal Street, P.O. Box 281
Springfield, MA 01102

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