23 September 2008

Oxford English Dictionary predates me!

In this post from April 2007, I complained how the respectable Journal of Molluscan Studies had let the authors of a paper they published "mistakenly" use the verb predate to mean "to prey on."

Imagine my frustration earlier today when I heard on the last week's edition of the BBC's Best of Natural History Radio podcast the narrator Philippa Forrester say "the whole idea of a bat predating migrant birds might come off as a bit of a shock..."

I decided it was time for another blog post. But then I thought it would be good to have the backing of perhaps the ultimate authority on these matters, the Oxford English Dictionary. So, I quickly e-mailed Deniz, who has access to the on-line version of the OED (which I, incidentally, once snubbed in this post), and asked her to look up predate for me. She quickly sent me the entry from the OED.

Now imagine my utter surprise, when I read the definition #2 of predate as a verb:


[Either < classical Latin praed{amac}t-, past participial stem (see -ATE suffix3) of praed{amac}r{imac} to plunder, spoil (see PREAD v.) after PREDATION n., or back-formation < PREDATION n. Compare PREDATISM n., PREDATIVE adj.]

1. trans. To act as a predator of; to catch and eat (prey). Chiefly in pass.

1941 [implied in PREDATED adj.]. 1956 Proc. Royal Soc. B. 145 313 Many larvae..were heavily predated by cuckoos. 1977 New Scientist 27 Oct. 220/3 The eggs of many species of frogs are predated by many species of vertebrates and invertebrates. 1994 Nature Conservancy May-June 18/2 People, who scare turtles, also bring litter, which..also brings more raccoons to predate nests. 2002 J. COHEN & I. STEWART Evolving Alien vii. 154 These could then be grazed by specialised protozoa (ciliates like Paramecium..), which were then predated by larger organisms.

2. intr. To act as a predator.

1974 Trout & Salmon Mar. 50/2 It is hoped that the stock of trout will predate sufficiently to minimise the problem [of coarse fish]. 1977 Field 13 Jan. 47/1 Man is a predator... To predate in person, instead of by proxy, is not unnatural. 1995 Daily Tel. 12 Aug. (Weekend Suppl.) 3/4 An awful lot of things use dead wood... They eat it, hide in it or use it to predate on dead wood invertebrates.
Well, there you have it folks. I was wrong all along. If the OED says it's okay, who am I to argue that it's not?

Let the predators predate their prey from now on.



Frank (Andy) Anderson wrote in an e-mail:

"Despite this, I will cringe every time I hear/see a student say/write "X predates Y". I maintain, OED or no, that there's no point in using "predate" in this way when there is a perfectly suitable, unambiguous and (I think) more elegant way to say/write the same thing -- "prey on/upon".

The following sentence, given as an acceptable example of this usage, almost hurts my eyes: "The eggs of many species of frogs are predated by many species of vertebrates and invertebrates". So the eggs of many frogs were around before many species of vertebrates and invertebrates? What an odd thing to write. If the writer had used "upon" with "by" in that sentence, at least it would be clear that feeding (and not timing) is being discussed.

My two cents"

Deniz said...

I tend to agree. Especially given that most people pronounce it “pre – date”...


Tim Pearce wrote in an e-mail:

"Whether OED accepts predate to mean eat, I still find it to be ambiguous. The ambiguosity can be avoided using Andy’s method, or another perfectly good word is depredate. Arriving in North America more than 2000 years ago, the land snail Cepaea hortensis predated the Vikings. However, in nourishing themselves, thrushes depredated the Cepaea hortensis."


Tim: I have never seen "depredate" used to mean to prey on. The Free Dictionary gives the meaning of depredate as "To ransack; plunder".


Michael Quinion, the editor of World Wide Words e-mailed this comment:

"You've covered it pretty well, except that you might mention that the stress in spoken English is different between the two verb senses of coming before and acting as a predator. It's a rare example (at least, offhand I can't think of another) in which verb senses are distinguished in this way, though it's not at all uncommon for stress shifts to occur between verb and noun (research, as one exmaple)."