An American Dictionary of the English Language

A man wanted to see where we kept our dictionaries. I showed him the 423's in the reference collection. Did we have Webster's original dictionary? I pointed to Merriam Webster's Third Unabridged, the current edition. No, he protested, he wanted Noah Webster's original dictionary, the 1828 edition. We didn't have that one. Why not? He thought it was as significant a cultural treasure as the King James Bible.

Why, indeed? I didn't have a good answer. I love dictionaries, and I prize my massive Webster's New International Dictionary: Second Edition, Unabridged, which I found in an antique shop for thirty dollars. It is still considered the authority by hardcore librarians, including many words left out as archaic by the third edition, and advising the reader whether a word is "proper English" or slang, a distinction that has fallen out of favor, to say the least. I admired his sentiment, and I was ashamed that we did not have Noah Webster's 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. I took an interlibrary loan request from him.

When I was in military school, at the Sanford Naval Academy, we had a teacher who impressed upon us the preeminence of the Merriam Webster dictionary. We must accept no other. He required us all to submit drawings of the Merriam Webster logo. It was Noah Webster who endeavored to save English from the English. Because of him, we write color instead of colour, and theater instead of theatre.

There is a sort of "back-to-intellectual-basics" trend in publishing now. Simon Winchester has written about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and others have written about Roget's Thesaurus, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and The Harvard Classics. I suppose a similar impulse is moving me to want to read Gibbon. (No, I'm not going to spoon-feed you the links. Look them up!)


Steerforth said...

Over here, the Webster's is naturally regarded as the Great Satan of dictionaries: "How dare these colonial upstarts alter the English language!"

These sentiments are uttered by people who are blissfully unaware that 'American' words like lonesome are pure Shakespearian English.

Brett said...

That's funny, Steerforth! I hadn't thought about it, but it's obvious. For "ready reference" we generally use the American Heritage Unabridged, but I am grateful that, as a librarian, I have access to a set of the OED.

I was amazed, once, to find in Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender, the phrase, "My sheep done bin wasted". "Done been" is still a common usage in the American South.