February 24, 2004

A gentle reminder

Hey, everybody, there are dictionaries! If you have a question about words, you can look it up in dictionaries and often find useful information. In particular, for the history of English words, the Oxford English Dictionary is often helpful. Unfortunately, most bars don't have a paper copy or a web subscription, but nearly all university libraries have both, and the web version is likely to be available to everyone on campus and perhaps remotely to those who can authenticate themselves electronically.

I've mentioned this before in connection with journalists who carry on about words without doing elementary fact checking. I bring in up now because Allan Hazlett's weblog has a sort of illustrated bar-room discussion of the verb "to spoon", either in the intransitive sense "To lie close together, to fit into each other, in the manner of spoons", or in the transitive sense "To lie with (a person) spoon-fashion".

I refer to the bar because Allan tells us that "We discussed this at length last night at the bar". He cites two questions, "First question: is spooning essentially sexual?" and "Second question: Is 'to spoon' transitive?", and he tells us that "there was little consensus." He gives the results of some research using Google, which is certainly a sign of wisdom. However, dictionaries are good for this kind of thing as well, and I'm pretty sure that the OED must be available at Brown!

The glosses above required no independent lexicography because I just cut and pasted them from the OED, which cites these examples of the intransitive:

1887 Harper's Mag. Apr. 781/2 Two persons in each bunk, the sleepers ‘spooning’ together, packed like sardines. 1894 Outing XXIV. 343/2 The precision with which we could ‘spoon’ that sad night was truly beautiful to behold.

and this for the transitive:

1887 Harper's Mag. Dec. 49/2 ‘Now spoon me.’ Sterling stretched himself out on the warm flag-stone, and the boy nestled up against him.

I believe that this is enough to settle both questions, at least for the usage of the late 19th century: Harper's magazine in 1887 was not an outlet for explicit descriptions of sexual encounters, but it was representative enough of the "common elite" to count as evidence for the existence of a transitive verb.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 24, 2004 04:20 PM