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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 109-112

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Computer-Assisted Evidence for the Antiquity of the Term Native American

Fred R. Shapiro
Yale University


In a 1994 article in American Speech, the distinguished lexicographer Sidney I. Landau (1994, 202-3) pointed out that the Second Barnhart Dictionary of New English (BDNE2 1980) describes the term Native American as a "new name" for American Indians, which "probably derives from the designation Native American Church . . . referring to a religious denomination of American Indians which combines traditional Indian beliefs and rituals with aspects of Christianity." The BDNE2's earliest citation for the term is dated 1973. Landau also noted that A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1972-86) has an ambiguous citation dated 1956, with its first clear example from 1973. He found that the files of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries contain a 1925 citation from a Kansas newspaper, also ambiguous. Landau then presented his own research, through which he discovered a 1909 inscription, "First Known Pictvre [sic] of Native American," in a home built by the archaeologist Henry Chapman Mercer.

Landau's article was the product of sophisticated research using traditional techniques of historical lexicography that went well beyond what others had unearthed. He used historical dictionaries, the largest lexicographical citation file, and his own discovery to arrive at a picture of Native American as a term dating to the early twentieth century. Yet this picture is an entirely wrong one. Native American was a common phrase in the nineteenth century, and its origins trace to the eighteenth century or earlier, which is not surprising in view of the obviousness of the collocation of the two words. I know this because I have applied a novel type of research, searching electronic historical texts, to the question of the antiquity of Native American. Such techniques will not always improve upon the results of conventional historical-lexicographical methods by any means, but in some cases, such as the present one, they yield dramatic results transforming our understanding of the word or expression under examination.

In two previous articles in American Speech (Shapiro 1998, 1999), I described one such transformative investigation of the origins of a term, [End Page 109] namely, the sentence adverb hopefully. I explained that full-text on-line databases, both commercial services such as Lexis-Nexis and scholarly resources such as JSTOR, allow large collections of historical texts to be fully searched and sorted by date. As the size, diversity, and chronological depth of these electronic resources expand, they become increasingly powerful tools for uncovering early occurrences of words and phrases.

I searched for Native American in a number of scholarly databases on the World Wide Web, including Making of America (a digital library of primary sources in American social history), Early Canadiana Online (a collection of primary sources in Canadian history), and Internet Library of Early Journals (20-year runs of two nineteenth-century British periodicals). I also searched for this phrase in the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which sometimes allows one to find quotations containing a term that are earlier than the first use for that term printed at the corresponding headword.

My searches yielded many nineteenth-century examples of Native American and two occurrences from the 1700s. The oldest usage is dated 1737 and appears in the OED's entry for the word Creole. The second oldest is from a 1795 book included in Early Canadiana Online. I list all the pre-1850 citations below, together with identification of which electronic resource produced the citation. (I exclude citations that employed Native American in the sense, also common in the 1800s, of a person of European descent born in the United States.) These examples push back the historical record, not only of Native American used as a noun, but also of that term used attributively (see 1824 and 1849 quotations below).


Citations for Native American

1737 Common Sense (1738) I. 280 (OED, sv Creole) As to his...


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pp. 109-112
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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