1/8/13 - dangerous new words

In today's selection -- in the early 1800s, the differences between British and American English had become sufficiently pronounced that American dictionaries began to appear, the most famous of which was written by Noah Webster. There was an outcry against these and the new words they included, with many in the general public decrying the dangerous spirit of innovation and appalled by such neologisms as lengthy, presidential, and departmental

"Webster's epic, monumental American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828. It rivaled -- and dwarfed -- [Londoner] Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Lan­guage: Johnson's listed some 43,000 words, Webster defined more than 70,000, and Webster, unlike Johnson, had written his dictionary himself, without so much as an amanuensis. ... 

"Webster's proposal [first made in 1800 to write this dictionary] made national news. No news might have been better. Within a week, a Philadelphia newspaper editor called Webster's idea preposterous (it is 'perfectly absurd to talk of the American language') and his motives mercenary ('the plain truth is that he means to make money').

"To be fair, much the same scorn had greeted two American dictionaries, published just months earlier. A pair of Connect­icut men, including the aptly-named-but-no-relation Samuel Johnson, Jr., offered a work promising 'a number of words in vogue not included in any dictionary.' Reviewers agreed that most of them didn't belong in any dictionary: sans culottes (no: French!), tomahawk (axe it: Indian!), and lengthy (good grief: what's next, strengthy?). 'At best, useless,' was one critic's three-word verdict on the first American dictionary. No bet­ter were notices of Massachusetts minister Caleb Alexander's Columbian Dictionary, containing "'Many NEW WORDS, peculiar to the United States.' 'A disgusting collection' of idiotic words 'coined by presumptuous ignorance,' wrote one reviewer, re­ferring to Alexander's inclusion of Americanisms like rateability and caucus. His final ruling on The Columbian Dictionary? 'A record of our imbecility.' ...

"Federalist critics of Webster's proposed dictionary at­tacked it by calling it innovative. Federalist editor Joseph Dennie, signing himself 'An Enemy to Innovation,' wrote, 'These innovations in literature are precisely what [French Revolutionary] Jacobinism is in Politics. They are both owing to the stupid vanity of the present day, which induces mankind to despise the well-tried principles of their Ancestors.' It was just this kind of thing that led to anarchy. 'If we once sanction the impertinence of individuals, who think themselves authorized to coin new words on every occasion,' Dennie warned, 'our language will soon become a confused jargon, which will require a new Dic­tionary every year.' ...

"In the Monthly Anthology, James Savage attacked Webster without mercy, sparing not his 'suspicions of the definitions of Johnson,' his 'ridiculous violations of grammar,' nor his 'hurtful innovations in orthography.' 'But the fault of most alarming enormity in this work,' Savage concluded, 'is the approbation given to the vulgarisms' like congressional, presidential, departmental, crock, spry, tote, whop, and, of course, the inevitable lengthy."


Jill Lepore


The Story of America: Essays on Origins


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2012 by Jill Lepore


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