Yes, indeed, guess what I found at the Thrift store last Saturday? Another word book! A mint condition, hardcover title with this intriguing cover: Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English, compliled by Arthur Schulman with an Introduction by Jill Lepore (Free Press, 2008). This is a book about the first American dictionary – the famous (infamous to some!) one produced by Noah Webster, and about the unique entries that Webster placed in his American wordbook. Hence, the title “Websterisms.”
Today we will start to cull a few gems from this book and thus from Webster’s Dictionary. But first you must listen to a brief portion of the introduction to it by Jill Lepore. For we must know our history, and the history of Webster’s Dictionary is a part of the foundation of this country and our American vocabulary. So here you go:
On June 4, 1800, Noah Webster, a sometime schoolteacher, failed lawyer and staggeringly successful spelling-book author, took out an ad in the back pages of a Connecticut newspaper, just above notices of a sailor’s death, a shoe sale, and a farmer’s reward for a stray cow. …Webster, who was forty-two, had this to say: he was busy writing a ‘Dictionary of the American Language,’ and he wanted the world to know it.
‘It is found that a work of this kind is absolutely necessary,’ Webster announced, ‘on account of considerable differences between the American and English (i.e., British -cjt) language.’ The American people had declared independence and constituted their own government. Now they needed their own dictionary, a place to put all the new words they had coined – Americanisms like ‘lengthy’, a good word to describe both the dictionary and the amount of time it would take Webster to finish it. Seventy thousand entries and a quarter century later, he would write his last definition, much to the relief of his wife and seven children and, toward the end, the tumbles of grandchildren who stomped up and down the stairs while Dear Pa toiled away, ‘A to Z’, in a study whose walls had been packed with sand to keep out the noise of even their whispers (‘RACKET, n. A confused, clattering noice…. We say, the children make a racket‘), although, for those brave enough to open his study door, Webster stocked a desk drawer with raisins and peppermints.
Webster’s epic, monumental ‘American Dictionary of the English Language’ was published in 1828. It rivaled – and dwarfed – the Englishman Samuel Johnson’s celebrated 1755 ‘Dictionary of the English Language’: Johnson listed some 43,000 words, Webster defined more than 70,000, and Webster, unlike Johnson, had written his dictionary himself, without so much as an amanuensis (another great word – look it up! -cjt), pp.1-2
Did you know that Webster was also a staunch Christian? His dictionary reflects that in the definitions and in the examples he gives. Here are just a few from the “As”:
Abandon, v.t. 1. To forsake entirely; as to ‘abandon’ a hopeless enterprise. ‘Wo to that generation by which the testimony of God shall be abandoned.’
Anno Domini. In the year of our Lord, noting the time from our Savior’s incarnation; as ‘Anno Domini,’ or ‘A.D.’ 1800.
We will have plenty more entries to draw from as we proceed with our “Word Wednesdays”. Keep growing your vocabulary!