Book of the week
The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight Over the English Language
by Peter Martin
Webster in his element: Rebel of the reference shelf
That quiet dictionary you keep at your desk began life as a real rabble-rouser, said The New Yorker. In 1782, 24-year-old Noah Webster launched a campaign that “would shape the linguistic future of the country,” and he did so with the full intent of opening a second front in America’s raging war against Britain. In Peter Martin’s “riveting” account of the decades-long drama that turned Webster into the first name in American dictionaries, the surprises only begin with Webster’s youthful claims that he was a “prophet of language to the American people” and a foe of the “corruption” and “tyranny” of British grammar, spelling, and usage rules. Martin “navigates a complex story, bringing to life the passions and ideologies that shaped the early American lexicon.”
Webster makes an imperfect hero, said Bryan Garner in The Wall Street Journal. Though the Connecticut native was a visionary of sorts, he was a sloppy lexicographer. His first dictionary, completed in 1806, advocated phonetic spellings; “women” became “wimmen” and “tongue” was “tung.” Soon after the completion of his first comprehensive two-volume dictionary, in 1828, there were so many of his dictionaries in circulation with so many divergent spellings that Webster, then past 70, couldn’t reconcile them. Enter Joseph Worcester, a younger scholar who was asked to create a one-volume abridgment and wound up excising the bulk of Webster’s idiosyncratic spellings and definitions. But when Worcester returned to work on his own dictionary, Webster accused him of plagiarism—a baseless charge that was later trumpeted by brothers George and Charles Merriam when they obtained the rights to Webster’s work and decided to bury Worcester’s superior independent effort. Their scheme succeeded.
“The dictionaries in use today owe far more to Worcester, a brilliant and innovative lexicographer, than to the hotheaded Webster,” said Christopher Benfey in The New York Review of Books. Some of Webster’s touches did survive Worcester’s prunings—including the reluctance to include offensive terms and the embrace of American words and phrases. But Webster was lucky that the Merriams recognized language’s dynamic nature in a way he did not, despite his declarations that language derives from the people, not from gatekeepers. In truth, “he wanted to establish meanings once and for all, to arrest pronunciation, to impose uniform spelling.” That is not how language works. ■