After nearly three decades of gathering and defining more than 70,000 words, Noah Webster came to the last entry.
It was January 1825 and his gargantuan undertaking to create the American Dictionary of the English Language had brought him to Europe to do research. He was staying in a boardinghouse in Cambridge, England, when he started to write the final word — “zygomatic.”
The man who did so much to give Americans their own unique English language began to tremble. He later wrote that he was shaking so badly that he had difficulty holding the pen steady enough to write.
The former teacher, politician and newspaperman pulled himself together long enough to jot in the entry that refers to the human cheekbone. Once finished, he got up and paced about the room until the trembling subsided.
It took three more years for the massive dictionary to be proofed and set in type. Finally, in November 1828, it was released.
When Arthur I. Schulman came across a facsimile copy of the 1828 edition in Heartwood Books in Charlottesville about eight years ago, his hands didn’t quiver. Nonetheless, the thick tome with a gold eagle embossed on its green cover immediately grabbed his attention.
As a veteran crossword-puzzle constructor and lifelong lexiphile — lover of words — he knew he had come across something special. He eagerly pulled from the shelf the colloquial wellspring from which in great part the American tongue first flowed.
“I had known about the dictionary for a long time, but had never looked into it,” said Schulman, a retired cognitive psychologist who taught at the University of Virginia for many years.
“I’ve always browsed dictionaries, and this one was in pristine condition and at a good price, so I bought it. This particular facsimile edition, which has been in print for 40 or 50 years, contains an introduction prepared by the publishers.
“It’s published by an evangelical Christian group in eastern Virginia. The introduction was a statement that this is a dictionary that parents should raise their children with, and not with the dictionaries that followed it.”
Schulman said it didn’t take much browsing before he realized why the Foundation for American Christian Education in Chesapeake would make that sort of statement. He found that many of the definitions are deeply moralistic, and even provide instructions on how to behave and statements concerning marriage and deference to authority figures such as parents.
Schulman became fascinated by how much Webster revealed about his religious beliefs, personality and the times in which he lived via the word definitions he wrote. This ultimately led him to compile more than 1,500 words and definitions in his just released book, Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English. The book is well-timed in that October 2008 marks Webster’s 250th birthday.
Work still important
Jill Lepore, Harvard University professor of American history, wrote the introduction to “Webster-isms.” Although the revered lexicographer died 165 years ago, she said his work is still important.
“Webster was a born definer of words, and many of his definitions are still with us,” Lepore said via e-mail. “His celebration of the American language was the start of a tradition, too.
“Webster’s are everywhere. On our bookshelves, in our hard drives. Webster wanted the American people to embrace the distinctiveness of their language. We have, thanks to him.”
Webster’s wildly successful spelling book, first published in 1783, provided him with a steady income that allowed him to spend 28 years creating the dictionary he is most remembered for. Although it has long been considered a masterpiece, it was initially derided by some influential people.
“Webster was a politician and newspaperman, in addition to being a lexicographer,” Lepore explains. “He endorsed a specific political position, one that many Americans opposed.
“His dictionary was political, too. And, in its early incarnations, it was derided largely for political reasons.”
Webster died on May 28, 1843, without knowing his dictionary would become a revered standard for all that followed. In its earliest form it does much more than state words and their definitions.
“I think any good dictionary, but especially the 1828 edition, can provide us with a window on the times during which the book was created,” said Schulman, whose crossword puzzles have appeared regularly in the New York Times for many years.
“First of all, you find words that meant something very different in those days. And you find words that are really no longer in the language, but meant something important and specific back then.
“And then the personality of the man comes through. It’s not just the moralisms, but the way he talks about things and the kind of distinctions he likes to make and the similarities he finds.”
Making the cut
Schulman’s first requirement for including a particular word and definition in his book was that it interested him. He said if it was a particularly striking definition that illustrates something about Webster’s personality or style it usually made the cut.
Webster was a patriot and served in the Connecticut militia during the American Revolution. He personally knew many of the Founding Fathers and worked hard to find quotes from people such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to include in the dictionary.
“Webster didn’t want to quote British writers, because he wanted this to be an American dictionary,” Schulman said. “And he wanted to show how Americans used the words that he defined.
“He was sensitive to words that had newly come into the language. There were now things that needed to have names that didn’t exist in previous generations, such as ‘caucus.’
“And he included a lot of American Indian terms. He was trying to be as complete as he could be. And it’s a personal dictionary in that at times when he’s defining something he talks about being there and seeing something in a particular place.”
Dictionaries are relatively new things. Schulman said there weren’t any “real” dictionaries in the English language prior to the 17th century. The first were “dictionaries of hard words” that first appeared around 1616.
Nobody felt a need to define words that everybody knew until Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. The Englishman listed some 43,000 words and had help compiling and defining them.
Webster had no help with his dictionary, and ultimately defined more than 70,000 words. In order to understand the roots from which words blossomed, he acquired a working knowledge of at least 20 languages, including Sanskrit.
Webster got warmed up for the work on his magnum opus by creating A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It was published in 1806, and included nearly 50,000 words.
Ferreting out 20,000 more words for inclusion in his masterwork was a daunting task. Webster’s passion for investigating the origins of words slowed the process even more.
Webster was a born-again Christian who often displayed his deep religious convictions not on his sleeve, but in his definitions of words. For example, in showing how the word “fear” might be used in a sentence, he wrote, “We have reason to fear the punishment of our sins.”
Whether or not a person agrees with Webster’s religious believes, his dictionary was a great gift to the American people. One of the things it did was save for posterity wonderful words that are uniquely American.
One example is “sozzle,” which refers to a woman who spills water or other liquids carelessly. Another is “shaver,” which denotes a boy or young man.
Just before Webster got to his final word in his dictionary, he entered the word “zuffolo.” He informs us that this is “a little flute or flageolet, especially that which is used to teach birds.”
Exactly what the birds are taught isn’t mentioned. What is certain is that Webster’s dictionary will likely continue to teach and inform people the world over well into the future.
“People know Noah Webster’s name, but very few people have actually looked at the 1828 dictionary,” Schulman said. “Imagine yourself in the situation he put himself in for all those years.
“He is doing the whole thing on his own to start with. Most of the time he’s sitting at a large table with reference books all around him.
“He fancied himself as somebody very interested in science, and there are a lot of scientific terms that appeared for the first time in his dictionary. And his dictionary had an enormous impact on American writers.
“It was Webster’s dictionary that encouraged writers to use Americanisms. He is a very important figure in our history for a number of reasons.
“Creating a great dictionary is one of them.”
Schulman will be discussing and signing copies of his book Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 29, 2008 at New Dominion Bookshop, 404 E. Main St., on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.