The didactyl anteater, Anteater D, aka The Antedater

It began five months ago, on ADS-L, the American Dialect Society mailing list, with a note from the compiler of the Yale Book of Quotations about a piece he’d recently published:

Fred R. Shapiro, Confessions of the Antedater. Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America 39.1.23-42 (2018).

An engaging and informative essay about finding earlier and earlier citations for English words and phrases. At the time, ADS-Ler Mark Mandel exclaimed:

At first I saw it as “Confessions of an Anteater”!

and Larry Horn chimed in:

Me too … Indeed, my mailer tells me that when I type “antedater” I really meant “anteater”.  Maybe someone should work on a logo

I seconded the suggestion, but then no one did anything until Fred’s piece came up again yesterday, and everybody made the same misreading again — and I came up not with a logo, but with a mascot, an Anteater With a D, the adorable little Silky Anteater didactylus.

Looking ahead, a photo of Anteater D, aka The Antedater:

(#1) Anteater D’s tail has been described as “partly prehensile”

But first, Fred. (I’ll forgo the picture of Fred. He’s amiable, but no competition for a cute furry animal.) The abstract for his paper:

The author relates the story of how, beginning with the word tiddlywinks, he became interested in “antedating” the earliest uses of words and phrases documented by the Oxford English Dictionary and then pursued this passion for forty years. His thousands of antedatings included improving the historical record of many important terms relating to sports and games, popular entertainment, American slang, politics, law, linguistics, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and other subjects. These discoveries have received extensive coverage by The New York Times and other media. Along the way, he pioneered in the use of searchable online historical text collections for linguistic investigations. Antedatings found by the author and others can shed considerable light on etymology, on history and culture through a lexical lens, and on other linguistic matters with a historical dimension. In addition, the author has extended the methods of historical lexicography to quotations and proverbs, compiling the Yale Book of Quotations and coediting the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Our knowledge of the origins of famous quotations has been revolutionized by the online searching and other research employed by the YBQ and DMP.

Keywords:historical lexicography, antedatings, historical dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary, online databases, quotations, quotation dictionary, proverbs, proverb dictionary,Yale Book of Quotations, Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, etymology

(I’d hoped to see the article get a wider audience, but at the moment it seems that the general public has to pay to access it.)

For me, the title “Confessions of the Antedater” echoes

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) … an autobiographical account written by Thomas De Quincey, about his laudanum addiction and its effect on his life. The Confessions was “the first major work De Quincey published and the one which won him fame almost overnight…” (Wikipedia link)

But on to the anteater. From Wikipedia:

The silky anteater (Cyclopes didactylus), also known as the pygmy anteater, is a species of anteater in the genus Cyclopes, the only living genus in the family Cyclopedidae. It is found in southern Mexico, and Central and South America.

… Silky anteaters are the smallest living anteaters [about the size of a human hand],


and have proportionately shorter faces and larger crania than other species. … They have dense and soft fur, which ranges from grey to yellowish in color, with a silvery sheen. Many subspecies have darker, often brownish, streaks, and paler underparts or limbs. The eyes are black, and the soles of the feet are red.

The scientific name translates roughly as “two-toed [didactylus, di ‘two’ + dactyl– ‘finger, toe’] circle-foot [cyclopes, cycl(o)- ‘circle’ + pes / ped- ‘foot’]”, and refers to the presence of two claws on the fore feet, and their ability to almost encircle a branch to which the animal is clinging.

… Silky anteaters are nocturnal and arboreal, found in lowland rainforests with continuous canopy, where they can move to different places without the need to descend from trees.

… The silky anteater is a slow-moving animal and feeds mainly on ants, eating between 700 and 5,000 a day.

… It is a solitary animal

A song for Anteater D


Two-toed circle-foot
Eyes black, toes red
Nocturnal, arboreal
Solitary, sedate


Notes on names. Despite its sound, the taxonomic name Cyclopes didactylus has nothing to do with didacticism, and only partly to do with Cyclops. Compare di-dactyl- ‘two-toed’ with:

adj. didactic: [a] intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive: a didactic novel that set out to expose social injustice. [b] in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way: slow-paced, didactic lecturing.  ORIGIN mid 17th century: from Greek didaktikos, from didaskein ‘teach’. (NOAD)

And compare cycl(o)-pes– ‘circle-foot’ with:

noun Cyclops: 1 Greek Mythology a member of a race of savage one-eyed giants. In the Odyssey, Odysseus escaped death by blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus. 2 (cyclops) a minute predatory freshwater crustacean which has a cylindrical body with a single central eye. Genus Cyclops and other genera, order Cyclopoida. ORIGIN via Latin from Greek Kuklōps, literally ’round-eyed’, from kuklos ‘circle’ + ōps ‘eye’. (NOAD)

2 Responses to “The didactyl anteater, Anteater D, aka The Antedater”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    3/4/19 and Fred is still at work. A posting of his to ADS-L:

    tiddlywink (OED 1844)

    1828 _Morning Advertiser_ 2 Oct. 3/3 (British Newspaper Archive) A Gentleman present … said, that gambling was at the root of the greatest evils in the prison. A game played with dice and a card, called “Tiddley Wink,” was in common practice.

  2. [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at anteaters and […]

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