Mind your language

That Beano word ‘scoff’ was first coined in the mid-19th century

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Scarcely a sober breath has been drawn in my house all week for celebrating the 90th anniversary of the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary. This stupendous achievement, in 15,490 pages by 1928, drew on more than five million quotations from old books sent in by volunteers. In 1879, when the heroic James Murray became editor, the Philological Society appealed to Americans to read 18th-century books — any, except for about 100 already combed.

One, I was intrigued to see, was A Travestie of Homer written in 1762 by Thomas Bridges, under the name Caustic Barebones. The Philological Society spelt his name Brydgys, but I can’t find that he did likewise. Bridges’ Travestie went into revised editions until 1797. Its slangy translation in octosyllabic couplets used bathetic or clever rhymes, with a touch of Samuel Butler and a vigorous vocabulary like that of Nashe. There was a lewd strain to it too. In today’s OED, 77 quotations from Bridges illustrate words such as butter whore, grand-dad, hermaphroditish, snickersneeing and tails (of a coin). It seemed the Philological Society’s reader had not wasted his time, until I found that at least ten quotations in the OED’s current online edition had not been in the edition of 1928, nor the second edition of 1989. Computer-aided lexicographers must have panned Bridges for gold afresh. Bridges’s grand-dad, for example, in his 1764 edition, comes decades before the citation from Byron’s Don Juan that was the earliest before the entry was updated in 2015.


Bridges throws new light on scoff (that Beano word). In the mid-19th century it was borrowed from Cape Dutch schoft (‘quarter of a day’, hence each of its four meals). But earlier it existed in English in the form scaff. Bridges has the couplet ‘How the hungry whoresons scaff’d; / How eagerly the wine they quaff’d.’ That may indicate a pronunciation ‘scoff’ (though quaff, to some, rhymes with laugh).

By a clear 70 years, Bridges also gives the first example of eat one’s hat: ‘I’ll eat my hat, if Jove don’t drop us, / Or play some queer rogue’s trick to stop us.’ Politicians often promise this, but don’t do it. They want to have their hat and scoff it.

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