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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just Look It Up

Nearly 200 years ago, Noah Webster published a book that would change America, if not the world.  It was the first version of American Dictionary of the English Language.   Webster’s 2-volume book contained a mere 70,000 entries – which compared to today’s dictionaries may seem small but at the time was 12,000 more than the nearest competitor’s.  Just about 100 thousand copies were printed, priced at 15 cents apiece.

Sometimes you know you have a best-seller when nobody likes it.  Conservatives said it was “too radical, bordering on vulgar,” while Liberals said it didn’t go deep enough into explaining some words’ meanings, “too conservative in nature.” Both sides said he would surely go broke from self-financing the adventure.  It sold out in just a few months.

While the first version in 1828 was a landmark, it was the 1844 version that may have had an even greater impact on American language. That’s because that version became sort-of a second bible to one of America’s greatest poets – Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson once commented that “Webster’s” was her only companion and she read it “as a priest reads his breviary – over and over, page by page, with utter absorption.”   Scholars still look upon the 1844 edition as an important resource for reading Dickinson’s life and work.

Dickinson only published about a dozen poems during her lifetime, but with the Webster’s Dictionary at her side she wrote nearly 2,000, discovered after her death in 1886.  Today, she is universally considered to be one of the most important American poets.

Meanwhile, Webster’s (now Merriam-Webster’s) soldiers on.   This year’s version has grown to now have 220 thousand entries, and the newest words added to America’s lexicon include Selfie, Hashtag, Crowdfunding and Fracking.
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