Sharpe said his “scalawag” hunt was a “solitary exploration” until he joined the American Dialect Society mailing list, a haven for those in the antedating game (including me). When he shared his findings, the old hands were suitably impressed. Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, confirmed that the examples predated any that he had come across. Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, deemed it “outstanding research.” It is ample proof that when it comes to tracking down word origins, the distinction between amateurs and professionals matters less these days than ingenuity—and luck—in working the historical databases. And Sharpe can thank his scalawag of an ancestor for leading him down the path to lexical enlightenment.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.