Daily Archives: January 4, 2011

There’s a Word For It

I think it's a boat, but we could look it up to be sure.

Have you ever looked up the word “dictionary” in a dictionary?  Let me save you the trouble — here’s what it says in Webster’s:  “A book containing a selection of the words of a language, usu. arranged alphabetically, with information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, blah-blah-blah.”

No, of course it doesn’t say blah-blah-blah; it goes on in real words.  People sat at their desks, sweating profusely as they struggled to come up with a precise definition.  Whoever they are, they never seem to say to themselves, “Why are we bothering?  Everyone knows what a boat is.”  (“A vessel for transport by water, propelled by rowing, sails, or motor.”)

Most of these scholars — called lexicographers — toil anonymously, but a few have gained fame for compiling dictionaries.  Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was not responsible for the first English-language dictionary; over a dozen had been published since the early 17th century, but Johnson’s became the standard.  As literacy among the general public increased in the 1700s, it had occurred to a group of British printers and booksellers that the time was right for a high-quality dictionary, so they approached Johnson, who was well-known as a poet and essayist.  The idea appealed to Johnson, partly because it’s tough to make a living as a poet and essayist.

Samuel Johnson signed the contract in 1746; A Dictionary of the English  Language was published in 1755.  During those nine years he had accumulated over 40,000 entries, some of which reflected his colorful personal opinions.  Consider his definition of “oats”:  “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” 

Johnson did not reap a financial bonanza from his dictionary, but his reputation increased — at his death he was far from rich, but was buried in Westminster Abbey, acknowledged as one of the important  figures in English literature.  It’s worth mentioning that Samuel Johnson, who devoted his life to words, had been born in a bookshop.

Unlike Johnson, the man whose name is synonymous with dictionary, Noah Webster (1758-1843) was not primarily a writer.  Among other things, he was a lawyer, a lobbyist, and a teacher.  Webster had served briefly in the American Revolution, and maybe that contributed to his determination to differentiate American culture from British traditions.  His dictionary, called An American Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1828; Webster used it to “correct” the spelling of many British words, like “traveller” and “flavour”.  Even without all those extra letters, Webster’s dictionary was roughly twice as big as Johnson’s had been, with something like 70,000 entries.  The similarity between the two dictionaries was their lack of profitability.  Webster’s estate sold the rights to George and Charles Merriam soon after Noah’s death.

A classic dictionary of the German language, called the Deutsches Wörterbuch, was written by two brothers who were 19th century academics.  It wasn’t their dictionary that brought them fame, though; Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were already well-known for their collection of fairy tales.  Yes — the same guys who gave us “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” also gave the world a book that includes the definition of boot:  “Schiff für den Transport von Wasser.”  You can look it up if you want.