Word Wednesday: “Websterisms”

WebsterismsYes, 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! 🙂

Spirituality and Exegesis (5) – E.Peterson

EatthisBook-EPetersonOk, one more quotation from the fourth chapter of Eugene H.Peterson’s Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006). After re-reading the last few paragraphs last evening, I want to get these thoughts of his in yet too. After criticizing those who make exegesis an end in itself and who take pride in their skill and the knowledge gained, Peterson writes this:

But exegesis does not mean mastering the text, it means submitting to it as it is given to us. Exegesis doesn’t take charge of the text and impose superior knowledge on it; it enters the world of the text and lets the text ‘read’ us. Exegesis is an act of sustained humility: There is so much about this text that I don’t know, that I will never know. Christians keep returning to it, with all the help we can get from grammarians and archaeologists and historians and theologians, letting ourselves be formed by it.

Yes, humility. For the more we learn and the more knowledge we acquire – especially when it is biblical knowledge, God-knowledge – the more liable we are to the temptation of going off on our own with our wonderful knowledge and using what we know to run our lives and other people’s lives the way we want. But this text was never intended to train us and equip us into competence, graduate us into an expertise that establishes us as a superior class of Christians, certified and sent off to do God’s work for him among the biblically unwashed.

If the knowledge we acquire through our reading and study of this text that involves us in following Jesus, diverts us from the very Jesus we started out following, we would have been better off never to have opened the book in the first place, pp.57-58.