Greybeard Dictionary?

Readers of Common Errors in English Usage may notice that I often cite the Oxford English Dictionary as an authority, especially for etymologies (word origins). This raises the hackles of some people who don’t see why they should be guided by a British publication rather than an American one.

I recently heard from someone who objected to my preference for “barefaced” over “baldfaced,” saying that since “bald-faced” (hyphenated) was defined in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary as showing no guilt or shame : not hiding bad behavior,” it was legitimate for Americans even if the OED doesn’t accept it.

There are several points I’d make about the MW entry. One is that it dates the first citation for “baldfaced” in this sense to 1943 whereas the OED dates the origin of “barefaced’ in this sense to 1704. Before the mid-20th century “barefaced” was standard in the US as well as in the UK. 

“Baldfaced” is overtaking it in popular usage, but in edited English “barefaced” prevails, as a search of Google Books shows. Usage guides, unlike some dictionaries, do not simply follow popular usage; they try to point out which patterns may be less acceptable to critical judges like teachers, editors, bosses, and picky friends.

The “full definition” of “baldfaced” in MW refers you to the entry for  “barefaced,” which provides the following definition: having or showing a lack of scruples” and gives the date of first use as 1590, though this date almost certainly does not refer to this figurative meaning of the word. So MW does cite both versions, but provides no guidance as to which should be preferred in edited writing.

MW is notoriously easygoing in adapting to current trends, so it’s seldom the best guide if you’re trying to please traditionalists.

The OED recognizes “baldfaced” only in the literal sense of “shaven.” That‘s not surprising since the OED is often slow to recognize new usages, particularly in US English. But it should be understood that the OED is not an exclusively British product, and it routinely cites US versus UK usage in its entries. Many Americans have worked for the OED, and American writers use it routinely.

The problem with referring to the OED is that current edition, available exclusively online, is out of reach for most Web users. Subscriptions are expensive. I have access through my university library. Check your own library’s online resources. You may be able to find it there. 

For another take on this issue, see the entry for “barefaced” in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

(Yes, I know I used the UK spelling “grey” in my title—after all, I’m referring to the OED.)

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