Cornering the Word Market

Noah Webster in an advertisement for Webster’s dictionary, 1847–1848
G. and C. Merriam Company Papers/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
A portrait of Noah Webster in an advertisement for the first Merriam edition of Webster’s dictionary, published in 1847–1848

Under certain circumstances, the question of whether a particular string of letters constitutes a word can assume a momentary prominence, with money or honor on the line. Passionate squabbles can erupt over a game of Scrabble or over how Jeff Bezos asserts his right to privacy. In his February online post accusing the National Enquirer of blackmail, the billionaire founder of Amazon used the doubtful word “complexifier,” twice, as in, “My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me.” Commentators were quick to point out that “complexifier” is indeed a word, although a verb, in French.1 Poor Bezos, they seemed to imply, deserved some linguistic latitude for having employed a combination of letters that constituted a word somewhere, even if not in Los Angeles or London, as opposed to, say, “covfefe.” And who decides, anyway?

The dictionary, of course, or “Webster,” as students will still say when admonished to define their terms, though which Webster—Daniel, Noah, or perhaps Merriam—few could say. The story of how so many dictionaries in America came to be known, generically, as Webster’s—a triumph of branding if there ever was one—is among the intriguing lore gathered in Peter Martin’s engaging and informative, if at times a little cluttered, The Dictionary Wars, with forays into copyright law, educational policy, religious revivalism, and other pressures on the verbal life of the nation.

The dictionary wars that interest Martin played out during the middle of the nineteenth century. They are to be distinguished from the spirited controversies, sometimes called the usage wars, surrounding the publication in 1961 of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.2 Webster’s Third was felt by many critics to be unduly permissive, sacrificing authority to the vagaries of usage. “A dictionary should have no traffic with…artificial notions of correctness or superiority,” its editor proclaimed. “It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” If ordinary speakers insisted on confusing “disinterested” with “uninterested,” let them be synonyms, Webster’s Third ruled. And if those same speakers used dirty words, let those words in, “with the exception,” as Dwight Macdonald drily noted, “of perhaps the most important one.”

Kindred points of contention, as Martin notes, had bedeviled dueling dictionaries a hundred years earlier. Given the preponderance of the Webster name, one might think that Noah Webster—whose landmark An American Dictionary of the English Language (Webster’s First) was published in 1828 in two huge volumes—was the unquestionable victor in the dictionary wars, as they were already referred to at the time. Similarly, one might conclude that Joseph Worcester, the largely forgotten Harvard-based lexicographer who was Webster’s most formidable rival, was the conspicuous loser.…

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