A good rule of thumb when informed that a word has a particularly interesting origin, or that a famous person was the first one to use it, is to assume that this is not the case. True, you’ll probably annoy the person who’s sharing this information with you, but you’ll be correct far more often than you’ll be wrong. So the next time you find yourself sitting next to someone at a dinner party and they try to make polite conversation by telling you that Jane Austen was the first person to use the word baseball, feel free to fill them in.
The notion that this most British of novelists invented the word for this most American of pastimes comes from the fact that Austen used it in Northanger Abbey (first published in 1817), several decades before the game was thought to have been first played in North America. There is no question that Austen was writing about baseball (“…it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country…”), but there is a question about what kind of baseball she was referring to.
There was a game played in the UK, called baseball, that had some similarity to the modern form of the sport. However, this is generally viewed as being a distinct game, having more in common with the British sport rounders. Given that Austen was writing about British people playing games in Britain, it seems unlikely that she was referring to an American game that had not yet been invented.
When did the UK version of baseball begin? It’s a bit unclear, but most historians would say that the earliest recorded written evidence is from a book titled A Little Pretty Pocket-book, published in 1744. The reason it’s unclear is that there are no copies of this 1744 edition to be found; a later edition, published in 1760 makes mention of baseball, and so it is assumed that it would also be found in the first.
And if that person at the dinner party is undeterred by your rude correction, and persists in telling you that Austen was the first person to use the phrase dinner party (she is often credited with having used it before anyone else in her 1815 novel, Emma) you can correct that as well. Dinner party has been recorded as far back as 1768, when it appeared in a book titled The Unexpected Wedding: “Lady Wriggleside has a dinner-party; her ladyship never dines till six.”
Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.