Thursday, September 11, 2008

Knocking Miss Austen down a peg

Big, big news about the origins of baseball: the first British mention of "base ball" has been pushed back more than half a century, to 1755.

What this article doesn't mention--but a lot of book-types will recognize--is that the first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary belongs to Jane Austen, from Northanger Abbey.

I'm surprised that the new reference pushes the date back so far, but finding previous usages must have been nearly inevitable. Thanks to digitization, scholars can now routinely discover usages that predate OED coinages--I found a couple myself researching my first book--and lots of people would be keenly aware of the importance of any reference to baseball. The most notable thing about the Austen usage--"it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books"--is that Austen seems to assume that every English reader will understand the term without effort.

Not to take anything away from this discover, of course--what a find!