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Our modern age has dictionaries of all kinds and sizes.

Part 2 of 2 Back to part 1 of dictionaries.

Samuel Johnson and A Dictionary of the English Language

In 1747, after Lord Philip Chesterfield had negotiated with Samuel Johnson to write a new dictionary that could be used by all of the people, Johnson started the project. So confident was Johnson of his literary powers that he offered to write the dictionary in three years. Friends warned him that such a short time wouldn’t be long enough. It had taken forty French scholars forty years to write a French dictionary. Shouldn’t he reconsider? “Nonsense,” Johnson replied in effect. “Any Englishman is the equal of forty Frenchmen. Three years! That’s all it will take.” In 1755, Johnson finished A Dictionary of the English Language— eight years of “sluggishly treading the track of the alphabet,” he told friends, not three — and he wasn’t at all satisfied with the work he produced. However, during those years, he had learned a great deal about words and how they make up language.

In his Preface, Johnson started by writing: “It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward... Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who presses forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress... Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.”

Later in his Preface, he wrote: “Of the event of this work, for which, having laboured it with so much application, I cannot but have some degree of parental fondness, it is natural to form conjectures... Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason or experience can justify... When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary* nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.” [*sublunary: of this world, earthly].

After a lengthy explanation of how it is impossible to prevent changes in a language, especially when “As by the cultivation of various sciences, a language is amplified, it will be more furnished with words deflected from their original sense;” he goes on to say, “If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? ... It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate* what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated: tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.” [*palliate, to make less intense or severe; to mitigate].

Johnson’s work was a landmark in the history of dictionary making. It was the first time anyone had put down on paper the words that actually made up the English language, and it set basic guides for the craft of dictionary making. Lexicographers for the next two centuries would follow many of the principles Johnson had established.

Early American dictionary makers

Near the end of the 18th century, more than 20% of the world’s English-speaking people were living in the United States. Their policy of universal education indicated a need for an English dictionary designed for use in primary schools. In 1798, a Connecticut schoolmaster, Samuel Johnson, Jr., produced in New Haven, Conneticut, a little book titled A School Dictionary. Also in 1800, The Columbian Dictionary, by Caleb Alexander of Massachusetts, had about 32,000 entries in which American usage was recognized by a few words (cent, dime, dollar, elector, congress, Congressional, lengthy, minute-man, Presidential, Yanky), and honor, favor, color, and troop were spelled as such. The Columbian Dictionary also included some alternatives such as: calendar-kalendar, chequer-checker, screen-skreen, sponge-spunge. Alexander included simple words, providing a vocabulary that could reasonably be called “complete.” Was this where Noah Webster got his ideas for respelling the “our” words (colour, favour) to “or” (color, favor)?

Noah Webster, the “father” of American dictionaries

One American who objected to the “personal style” of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was a “sober, pious” New England schoolmaster named Noah Webster. “Johnson was always depressed by poverty,” he said tartly. “He was naturally indolent and seldom wrote until he was urged by want. Hence … he was compelled to prepare his manuscripts in haste.”

In his view, dictionary making allowed no compromise, permitted no weakness. Webster set a standard for dictionary making that continues to this day. He attended Yale College and, five years after graduation, in 1783, he published his Blue-Back Speller, America’s first speller, grammar, and reader. This book sold an amazing million copies a year at a time when the entire populatiion of the United States was only 23 million. It stayed in print over a century (under the titles The American Spelling Book and later The Elementary Spelling Book) and sold a total of 70 million copies. Apparently, the money the book earned made it possible for Webster to spend his time doing what he really wanted; that is, writing dictionaries.

To prepare himself for the task, he set about studying languages and in time learned twenty-six, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit. The basic reason Americans needed a dictionary of their own, Webster believed, was that American English was different from the English of Johnson’s day. Settlers in America had spoken English for two centuries and had invented their own words to describe conditions in this new land. In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. By compendious, he meant “concise, brief, a summary.” His dictionary is important in the story of dictionaries because in the long history of lexicography, it showed for the first time how Americans spoke English. Of the 37,000 words in Webster’s dictionary, about 5,000 were native to America and never before had appeared in any British-English dictionary. Squash, skunk, raccoon, hickory, caucus, presidency, congressional, applesauce, and bullfrog are a few examples.

Like Johnson, Webster searched for words in books, but he also tried something new — and established a principle of dictionary making that has been followed ever since. He began recording words as he heard people use them. In doing so, he followed Johnson’s theory that spoken words make up a language. Webster had a few ideas about fixing the spelling of some words. The way many words were spelled, he noted, had no relation to the way they were pronounced. This offended Webster’s neat and orderly way of doing things. As he went about writing the Compendious, he changed the spelling of many words to match their sounds. He dropped the silent “u” in the English spelling of honour and favour and wrote honor and favor, and the final “k” in musick, logick, and publick and used instead music, logic, and public. He also dropped the second “l” in traveller, labelled, and farewell and transposed the last two letters in English words like centre and theatre. Webster also tried to simplify the spelling of other words by dropping silent letters: “e” from imagine, “e” from definite, “b” from thumb, “a” from feather, and “a” from head. For these spellings, he substituted imagin, definit, thum, fether, and hed. Most people were not ready for these new versions and so such spellings never became acceptable. For some unexplainable reasons, Americans went along, over two hundred years ago, with favor, honor, public, logic, music, traveler, and labeled. They also agreed to switch the “re” to “er” in center and theater; but they strongly objected to most of the other changes Webster suggested. We still write thumb with a “b”, head and feather with an “a”, farewell with a double “l”, and imagine and definite with a final “e” even though these letters serve no purpose; except perhaps to show the unpredictable way language develops and that people, not grammarians or dictionary makers, primarily determine how we spell the words we read and write.

Samuel Johnson’s suggestion that dictionary makers, “retard what we cannot repel;” that is, slow the process of drastic changes in English since they cannot be stopped or rejected; may actually be working. Dictionaries are often the “authority” that we consult when people have doubts about the “correct” meanings and applications of words and so may indeed provide stability in the language.

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