Mammoth cheese, one nation, and shagging: Thomas Jefferson in the OED

To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-Americanleaf lettuce, Megalonyx, N.Y., Riesling, sanction? The man who gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has also left us an incredible record of words in the English language.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this one passage, this single sentence, of the Declaration of Independence—whose adoption on July 4, 1776 Americans commemorate today—Thomas Jefferson gives a new nation, a new democracy, its immortal, founding words.

But Jefferson’s words have left many other marks. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributes to Jefferson over 100 quotations that provide the first evidence of a word in English and nearly 400 quotations that provide the earliest record of a particular meaning. His breadth is truly impressive, ranging from architecture (rooflet, 1825; remodeling, 1785) and botany (leaf lettuce, 1795; rubber tree, 1826) to wines (Médoc, 1793; Riesling, 1788) and extinct giant sloths (Megalonyx, 1796; megatherium, 1797).

“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776,” Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

The OED credits Jefferson for a host of adjectives: indecipherable, 1802; indecisive, as “irresolute,” 1787; indescribable, in its transcendent sense, 1785; and opposed, as “adverse to,” 1784.

The OED credits him for a heap of adverbs: lengthily, 1787; monotonously, 1786; semi-weekly, 1791; and ultimately, as “definitely,” 1785.

The OED acknowledges him for many everyday nouns: an auction bid, 1788; counter-offer, 1788; a metaphorical crusade, 1786; doll-baby, 1807; a metaphorical eve, 1780; a mill, as short for “million,” 1821; non-Catholics, 1788; overdraft, as in banking, 1812; ottoman, the furniture, 1789; and a business outlet, 1803.

The OED gives him the first nod for some common verbs and verb forms (to be done and done with, as in “finished,” 1785; to eke out an existence, 1825; to face, as in “confront”; to get out, or “publish,” 1786; to give in, or “yield,” 1793; to misdeliver, 1800; to refile a document, 1792; and to sanction, 1778).

And, yes, many of Jefferson’s OED firsts are political in nature: Anglophobia, 1793; Americanism (as in pro-America), 1797; Clintonian (not Bill or Hillary, but George, first governor of New York), 1792; electioneer, 1789; Irish-American, 1786; Mason-Dixon line (originally the northernmost limit, at Maryland and Pennsylvania, of slavery before abolition), 1776; midnight appointment, 1801; N.Y. as an abbreviation for the state of New York, 1799; post-revolutionary, 1814; rapprochement, 1795; territory (like Guam today), 1784; and war hawk, 1798.

Here are a few standout examples of Jefferson’s earliest attestations in the OED, highlighted for their silliness, seriousness, or just plain incredibleness:


v., orig. U.S., transTo reduce in size, make small. Now with overtones of, and difficult to distinguish from, sense 2. (To dismiss the importance of, depreciate.)

1785   T. Jefferson Notes Virginia vi. 118   So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side the Atlantic.

Count ten

v. To count ten…spec., to do this in order to check oneself from speaking impetuously; also to count up to ten.

1817   T. Jefferson Let. 12 July in Writings (1899) X. 93   When angry count 10. before you speak.


n. The action or process of setting free or delivering from slavery; and hence, generally, from restraints imposed by superior physical force or legal obligation; liberation.

1785   T. Jefferson Let. 7 Aug. in Papers (1953) VIII. 357   Emancipation is put into such a train that in a few years there will be no slaves northward of Maryland.


adj. orig. U.S. Comparable to the mammoth in size; huge, gigantic. The reference in quot. 1803 is to a large cheese presented to Jefferson.

1801   T. Jefferson Let. 22 Oct. in Papers (2008) XXXV. 479   I recieved..a present of a quarter of a Mammoth-veal which at 115. days old weighed 438. lb.

1803   J. Davis Trav. U.S.A. ix. 329   Its extraordinary dimensions induced some wicked wag of a federalist to call it the Mammoth Cheese.

One nation

n. A nation which is not divided; a united people.

1786   T. Jefferson Let. 8 Feb. in Lett. (1984) 850   The politics of Europe render it indipensibly necessary that with respect to everything external we be one nation only, firmly hooped together.


v., coarse slang….trans. and intr. To copulate (with).

1770   T. Jefferson Memorandum Bks. 27 Dec. (1997) I. 200   He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.


Comb. form, the stem of vomit v. used in a few combinations, as † vomit-grass n. Obs. a grass causing vomiting in dogs.

1808   T. Jefferson Writings (1830) IV. 119   Your presence will be to them what the vomit-grass is to a sick dog.


All definitions and citations are from the OED Online, accessed July 2017.


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