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Webster: the Weaseliest Word in Dictionaries

Uniquely among English speakers, Americans tend to view the name "Webster" as nearly synonymous with "dictionary". The phrase "according to Webster" clocks 600,000 hits on Google. Sentences beginning "Webster's dictionary defines _______ as" is a standard trope in student writing and poorly edited journalism. It suggests that there is one authoritative dictionary, and it is Webster's.

The history behind these habits of usage is complex and fascinating, and not at all what you might think. Up until now, that history has never been laid out in a comprehensive way. But Peter Martin's new, excellent, and engaging book remedies that. The book is The Dictionary Wars and it is an account of the beginnings, twists, and turns in American lexicography that have led to the unique place of the name "Webster" in the minds of Americans today. If you're a lover of words and dictionaries, you'll want to put this book on your reading list.

A number of complexities underlie the throwaway common phrases I noted above, both of which seem to ensconce Noah Webster in a lexicographical shrine big enough for only one. The phrases are at once both ironically accurate, and completely misleading. The truth is that when you read a definition in a dictionary that has "Webster" somewhere on the cover, there's only a small chance that it was written by, or based on a definition by Noah Webster. What's more, if the definition was in fact a brainchild of the early American lexicographer, it’s likely to be a definition much in need of further work. Webster has not penned anything since the early 19th century (he died in 1843). And while he was a visionary in regard to the emergence of the American variety of English as a new thing under the sun, he was a biased and often sloppy lexicographer who relied almost entirely on his intuition and some rather poor sources for his interpretation of what words meant and whence they were derived. He was throughout his career often deeply invested in shining forth as an American patriot and the foremost champion of his new country's idiom, and that endeavor often took rather more of his energy than the work of lexicography did.

At the time that Webster conceived his first great enduring dictionary — his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language — he was by all appearances better qualified than anyone else to do the work. Webster was the author of widely circulated books in print that every American schoolchild was familiar with: namely, a grammar, a speller, and a reader, all published in the 1780s. He had already earned the epithet "Schoolmaster of America" when he set about writing what he intended to be a definitive American dictionary, and this gave Webster what author Martin calls a tailwind for most of his career. To the degree that anyone knew who Webster was, they would agree without reservation that he was the man best placed to write a dictionary for America.

Someone who was in fact equally well placed to write that dictionary was a man you've probably not heard of: Joseph Emerson Worcester. He was a scholar already steeped in the lexicography of his day, and had worked as an editor on other dictionaries. He published the Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory English Dictionary in 1830. Worcester's work was more traditional and more scholarly than Webster's, and it elicited a charge of plagiarism from Webster; thus the dictionary war began.

The war had its chief antagonists, but wars need armies too, and this one had them in the form of rallying troops on each side, which included members of the Webster family, publishers (the Merriam brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts, figured prominently), and many well-known 19th-century politicians and men of letters. I will not spoil here the tangled history of shifting alliances, betrayals, acquisitions of rights, slippery movement of definitions, and further charges of wrongdoing on both sides; you'll enjoy it much more in the book.

It's no spoiler to tell you who won this war, because you already know that. Americans do not say “according to Worcester.” But the victory for the Webster side was hollow in many ways and has become hollower as the years have passed. By the first decade of the 20th century, several dictionaries had appeared that were published with the moniker "Webster," even though they had nothing to do with Noah Webster's dictionaries.

The copyright on genuine Webster dictionaries expired in 1889, and after that, there was nothing to stop other publishers from trading on the Webster name. After a 1908 lawsuit, Webster was deemed to be a genericized trademark for any dictionary, and it is still widely used today. If you rummage through the forlorn and disheveled bookshelves in a dollar store you may come across a cheap paperback dictionary. It will probably be chock full of cut-rate definitions, and it will say "Webster's Dictionary" on the cover. But use of the name is not only for the low end of the market.

Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Webster's New World Dictionary, and Encarta Webster's Dictionary are all quality, modern dictionaries that trade on the Webster name but did not directly inherit any of his work. Interestingly, the last-named title was adopted when the title Encarta World English Dictionary did not catch fire, despite an expensive advertising campaign.

The chief inheritors of Webster's original work, the Merriam-Webster company, attempted some damage control by trademarking the phrase "Not just Webster. Merriam-Webster." They began to use it in the early 1990s. It didn't exactly roll off the tongue then and it doesn't now. You are probably as likely to say it as you are to say "according to Worcester."

What particularly fascinates me as a lexicographer in reading this book is the clear evidence that a dictionary is a valuable property: it is the physical (or these days, digital) repository of the years of capital investment that went into it in the form of arduous and careful work. But while inherently valuable, a dictionary cannot earn back its investment unless it is actually viewed as a valuable property, and that can only happen if it is marketed in a way that communicates its value to consumers. Today, nearly two hundred years after Noah Webster completed his first great dictionary, it seems that his name, not his work, has maintained the greater value.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.