Q: I’m teaching a pair of courses next term on nonfiction and have been thinking about the idea of naming something by what it isn’t. That seems odd and got me to wondering just when and where the term “nonfiction” was first used. Any idea?
A: Our first thought was that only bureaucrats could conceive of naming something by what it isn’t.
Sure enough, the earliest published reference to “nonfiction” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the 1867 annual report of the trustees of the Boston Public Library: “This, as we have seen, is above the proportion of our circulation between fiction and non-fiction.”
The term appears to have lost its hyphen (at least in the OED citations) in the early 1950s. The earliest hyphen-less example cited is in The Celebrity, a 1951 novel by Laura Z. Hobson: “In this bad slump, nonfiction’s the only thing selling – apart from one or two novels a year.”
Librarians also appear to be responsible for the adjectives “non-fictional” and “non-fiction,” according to the OED. The earliest citations for the two terms come from 1894 and 1895 issues of The Library, a magazine of the Library Association of the United Kingdom.
All the OED citations for the two adjectival forms are hyphenated, but both words are spelled without hyphens in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
The word “fiction,” by the way, has a more creative background. It’s ultimately derived from the Latin verb fingere, which means to shape, form, or feign. That sounds a lot like what a fiction writer does.
“Fiction” was first used in the literary sense (or, in the words of the OED, as a “species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events”) in the late 16th century.
The earliest citation for this usage is in the title of a 1599 book translated from Italian into English by the poet Richard Linche: The Fountaine of Ancient Fiction.
The Latin verb that gave us “fiction” has also given us such English words as “effigy,” “faint,” “feign,” “figure,” and “figment,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
[Note: A later post on “nonfiction” appeared in 2017.]