This post is for those of you who like reading dictionaries (or about the making of dictionaries). Have you ever wondered why bonds are called bonds? To (try) to answer this question, let’s review what the Professor and the Madman have to say.

For those of you interested in the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester is an engaging book worth reading. The book’s blurb gives a good flavor of its contents:

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on honoring him. For Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

An online project has been working to scan the entire original version, so we can actually take a peek at its contents ourselves instead of relying upon descriptions or trying to find an original. While the project is not yet complete, the letter “B” is conveniently located in Volume 1, and is available online.

Tucked between “Bonchief” and “Bondage” and covering most of three pages, the meanings of the word “Bond” are grouped into various categories. The literary and figurative uses of the word are substantially the same as they are today, with early examples of the word going back to 1250.

Readers of this blog may be interested to know that the use of the word “bond” in a financial sense dates back to at least 1592. Under English law, it was “A deed, by which A (known as the obligor) binds himself, his heirs, executors, or assigns to pay a certain sum of money to B (known as the obligee), or his heirs, etc. And yes, even then, conditions were being included: “a condition may be attached that the deed shall be made void by the payment, by a certain date, of money, rent, etc., due from A to B, or by some other performance or observance, the sum named being only a penalty to enforce the performance of the condition. . .” See below for the English law definition in full:

Interestingly, the Scotch law definition (below) notes that bonds were issued by a government or public company, as they often are today. The dictionary notes that the word bond was outdated (as of 1888), and that in modern usage synonymous with a debenture. One example given from 1788 even refers to “Bonds of turnpike commissioners.” So at least as far back as 1788, we even had the same type of issuers.