“Chickadee” an “Authorism”?

This morning while watching a small horde of black-capped chickadees [a banditry or dissimulation of chickadees, you might say, or just a flock] taking turns at the feeder, a I had a quick look through Paul Dickson’s Authorisms: Words Wrought by Authors. The book is a list of literary neologisms and their attributions.

There are early warning signs, including this from the short introduction: “Milton often coined the words he wanted, and the Oxford Dictionary finds in his writings the first appearance of many words which are now familiar to us all.” Uh oh… and this only a half page before the correct reference: “According to Gavin Alexander … who has mined the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for evidence…” Does Bloomsbury have copy editors?

Then there’s the front blurb:

An entertaining, illuminating lexicography of words coined or popularized by authors throughout the ages, published on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

There’s plenty of bardolatry (included on p.28 with a nod to G. B. Shaw) to go around in Authorisms, and the usual fudging as to what counts as a “word”: are aha moment, gentleman farmer, bitch goddess, and knock, knock, who’s there?words? Most of the diction of “Jabberwocky” is included – are these all words in the same way? [Chortle I’ll give you. But frumious?]. What about POSSLQ, a “person of opposite sex sharing living quarters”? This fails a classic test of when an acronym becomes a word: unlike “radar”, you don’t pronounce it as a word, which the “poetic” citation confirms: “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do | If you would be my POSSLQ”. [I could be wrong: the meter suggests the pronunciation could be possel-kyoo, so maybe we do have a lexicalized or half-lexicalized item here. But no one has actually used this term outside of a census context, have they?].

One thing Dickson gets mostly right, which other such entertainments don’t always, is the basic distinction between neologism or coinage and first attribution – although as the subtitle indicates, this fades away in the execution.

By authorism Dickson sometimes means a word first attested in a literary work. But, Shakespeare aside, many of his authorisms are by non-literary authors. Like cheesecake, from Time magazine. And, once Time is admitted, you might say all words attested in historical dictionaries such as the OED are authorisms, since all the attestations come from written works. I suppose an exception could be made for “reported” words, such as one finds in regional lexicons etc..

The tautonym authorism is an authorism not listed in Authorisms. Neither, for that matter, are neologism, neology [see “New Words for New Words“], or Nonce word [see “Ironic OED Quotations” and “Ghost Hapaxes in the OED“].  But coined the word/coined the phrase is/are, with the usual attribution to Puttenham [typically censorious: “young schollers not halfe well studied..when they come to their friends..will seeme to coigne fine wordes out of Latin” – see again “New Words for New Words“].

One thing I didn’t know (or had forgotten) was the reputed origin of the common name for Parus atricapillus, the chickadee, previously known as the black-capped titmouse. Dickson says it “appears to have been coined by the American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who used it as early as 1839.” However, as I found out in “Top Eleven Most Common Words Invented in Verse” and the follow-up “O hell-kite! All? – Antedating Verse Coinages“, when attributing a word to a particular author with OED2, you’re likely to find that the lexicographers revising entries for OED3 have discovered an earlier usage.

The first three OED2 citations under (as yet unrevised) chickadee are indeed by the bard of Walden:

1838   H. D. Thoreau Jrnl. 23 Sept. (1981) I. 56   The chick-a-dee is more than usually familiar. [Note the date discrepancy – without investigating further, I’m inclined just to go with OED on this one]

1854   H. D. Thoreau Walden 137   The chicadee lisps amid the evergreens.

1860   H. D. Thoreau Let. 4 Nov. in Corr. (1958) 599   The jays scream, & the chickadee winds up his clock.

 As much as I’d like the Massachusetts state bird to have been named by Thoreau, it can’t be true. The onomatopoeia (cf. French mésange kiskis in Cuvier’s Dictionnaire, vol. 30 1824) is much more likely to have been in general use, probably in several variants all around the American north-east. The Canada Farmer (1866) refers to “the little chich-a-dee” which “feeds upon the apple-worm”, which could be a type-o, but could also reflect a variant pronunciation.

In any case, a quick Google Books search shows that in the year of Thoreau’s journal entry, the word had just been recorded in the Encyclopaedia Americana: A Popular Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature, History, Politics, and Biography, ed. Lieber, vol. 12 (1838): “The black-capt titmouse, or chick-a-dee, is the most familiar”. [I assume that “the most familiar” here has nothing to do with Thoreau’s “more than usually familiar” – it’s a different sense of familiar – but one never knows.]

I’m not at all sure about Thoreau’s characterization, in Walden, of”The chickadee [that] lisps among the evergreens”. That sounds nice, but doesn’t sound much like how chickadees sound. I suppose “The chickadee chick-a-dees among the evergreens” or “The chickadee chatters among the evergreens” would have been over-alliterative, if more accurate.


  • My not-yet-wife and I certainly said “possle-cue” about one another between 1980 and 1984 (when we married), admittedly in the mood of irony, but then we’re both word nerds.

  • kts wrote:

    Chickadee got its update in 2019, and the first citation is exactly that quote from Encyclopaedia Americana, in an 1832 edition. All the Thoreau quotes have been dropped, but no need to feel bad for Thoreau, he still has over 600 quotations in other entries.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *