Monday, July 15, 2019

The Dictionary Wars

Dictionary, Words, Grammar, Abc, LettersMost of us, if asked who wrote the first dictionary, will answer - "Webster of course" because that is what we are taught but they've left a bit off.

Picture this if you will.  Its the end of the Revolutionary war.  America has just gained its independence and as part of that need, two men began creating American dictionaries filled with proper American words.

They wanted something similar to the dictionary published by Samual Johnson in 1755 but without all the "English" words.  Thus two men, Noah Webster and Joseph Emerson Worcester began writing official dictionaries.  Webster believed an American Dictionary should be governed by the nations principals while Worcester thought that went too far.

Noah Webster felt that his dictionary should reflect the linguistic independence of America by dropping the K from words such as musick, or the re at the end of theatre became er making it theater. He also omitted words such as that he felt were morally offensive so you would not find them in is version.

In addition, Webster had been publishing dictionaries but they were not very accurate.  His definitions often were mini essays expounding his moral beliefs, his etymologies could be quite fanciful, spellings were of his own invention such as aker for acre.  By the 1830's he'd published enough editions with different information and spellings that he couldn't reconcile them.

Joseph Emerson Worcester also worked on a version of the American Dictionary after he decided it was his calling.  He had already published books on geography and history and was well known for them and he published the American edition of Samual Johnson's dictionary.  In 1827, Webster's son-in-law got him to sign over his rights to a one volume dictionary.  He and the publisher hired Worcester to postpone work on his own dictionary to edit Webster's work into one volume.

Worcester made major changes and included certain charts that remained with and attributed to Webster's dictionary for many years afterward.  It took him eight months to finish the work before he was able to return to his own work.  Webster was not happy with all the editing done to his work so he alleged that Worcester was plagiarizing his work.

These wars did not cease upon Webster's death in 1843.  His family fought to take control of his copyright and profits so they brought the Merriam Brothers into the picture.  In addition, the Merriam Brothers continued repeating allegations of plagiarism against Worcester through the use of scandal ridden pamphlets.

Worcester finally published his version in 1860 and many scholars of the day claimed it was the best dictionary out there but the Merriam Brothers continued their public relations fight against Worcester by publishing accusations in newspapers across the nation.  When he died in 1865, his reputation had been slaughtered.

Eventually, the editorial duties for the dictionary were given to Noah Porter at Yale College where he and others rewrote Webster's dictionary so it was a scholarly work rather than a platform for beliefs and it was this edition that formed the basis of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

During the whole time between 1843 and 1865, everyone weighted in on the dictionary question.  Universities, religious groups, state governments, scholars, etc to argue and lay input but by 1865, Webster's  came out on top and that is why it is the dictionary we are taught is the first American Dictionary.

Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear.  Have a great day and tomorrow, you might see my first pictures of Costa Rica where I'll be spending the week.

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