Tangent: The Naming of the Shrew

· 06 August 2018 ·

I was not talking about small insectivorous mammals.

The word shrew as a catch-all for Doctor Johnson’s laundry list of feminine flaws has a surprisingly gender-neutral origin. Venomous shrews did and do exist, though. One of these days you might paralyse your wrinkles with injections of shrew spit rather than Botox.
Roughly corroborating my yellow highlight above is this graph of the word shrew’s usage in ‘lots of books’ over the 200 years between 1550 and 1750, as per Google’s Ngram Viewer tool. The word’s early absence might be remarkable to the OED, but what ended it is fairly easy to figure out.

The viewer’s earliest starting date is 1500, though I ran this search from 1550. Before 1500 there weren’t enough books made (and surviving) to be scanned. Gutenberg’s Bible was in production by 1455, Caxton was printing in England in 1476. Google adds: Publishing was a relatively rare event in the 16th and 17th centuries. So if a [word or] phrase occurs in one book in one year but not in the preceding or following years, that creates a taller spike than it would in later years.

Shrew and shrew both showed no usage in print until shrew’s spike in 1581, followed by the much taller spike for both forms in 1620. I had no explanation for 1581 (perhaps people were writing about vermin), but 1620 looked obvious to me, though slightly misplaced.

1620 spike, enlarged:

I hypothesised that the First Folio’s publication in 1623 didn’t match the spike’s date because the tool might be fuzzy on the x-axis, though why this should be so I couldn’t say. Even old books are usually dated; the Folio was, right under the Droeshout engraving of you-know-who.

So I ran The Taming of the Shrew as a test, since I know that it didn’t exist in print until 1623.

Hypothesis confirmed. On you, Google.