THE DICTIONARY WARS by Peter Martin

THE DICTIONARY WARS

The American Fight Over the English Language
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The creation of an American dictionary incited fierce rivalries.

Martin (Samuel Johnson: A Biography, 2008, etc.) turns his attention to Americans who strived to compile a new dictionary to reflect the spirit of a new nation. In vivid detail, drawing on prodigious archival sources, the author follows the efforts of two strong-willed men who devoted their lives to the task: Noah Webster (1758-1843) and Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784-1865). Reviling Samuel Johnson for the “exclusive, pompous, artificial, and formal regularity of style” of his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, many Americans called for “democratic expression more in keeping with the surging American romantic spirit of freedom, simplicity, and individuality.” Webster, a man of prickly nature and strong opinions, aimed to bring “linguistic unity and independence” to his dictionary. This meant that British words and definitions needed to be reassessed, as well as spelling: “k” dropped from words such as “musick” and “frolick”; “re” replaced by “er,” making the British “theatre” the American “theater.” Moreover, Webster believed that “grammar and lexicography should be moral agents, shielding the public by omitting language that was morally repugnant and offensive and providing definitions that were morally instructive.” Johnson had defined “whore,” but Webster would not. His American Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1828, with numerous editions and abridgments quickly following. Hoping to dominate the dictionary market, he had formidable competition from Worcester, shy, gentle, and more scholarly than Webster, who had already published several respected works of geography and history when he decided “that lexicography was his great calling.” Martin chronicles the many editions, revisions, and innovations as the competition intensified. The dictionary wars were hotly debated in newspapers and magazines, a drama that “captivated the American public.” After Webster died in 1843, family members vied for control of his copyright and profits, finally bringing an upstart publisher—the Merriam Brothers—into the project. Their new American Dictionary, published in 1847 and continuously revised, carried the Webster name into the future.

An informative and often pleasantly surprising cultural history.

Pub Date: May 28th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-691-18891-1
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2019




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