OHEL ON AMERICAN DICTIONARIES.

Continuing my exhilarated exploration of The Oxford History of English Lexicography, I would like to report on chapter 9, “Major American Dictionaries” by Sidney I. Landau. I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the subject, but I had barely heard of Joseph Worcester (1784–1865), Webster’s chief competitor and one of Landau’s heroes:

Worcester has included [in his Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (1846)] a number of lengthy usage notes of considerable interest. For example, under rather he includes an extended discussion of rather and sooner, and discusses alternative pronunciations of the former in a most sensitive way, linking a given pronunciation or stress pattern with a particular meaning in a particular social situation. Again, he observes that in Southern states, to raise is to bring up, as ‘The place in which he was raised’, citing Jefferson. Thus Worcester demonstrates a high degree of sophistication in discussing regionally restricted usages as well as usages dependent on social contexts at a time when such information was hardly provided in American dictionaries….

[In his Dictionary of the English Language (1860)] Worcester disputes Horne Tooke’s argument that each word has but one meaning and cites a number of common verbs such as get and turn to show the impracticability of such an argument. ‘The original or etymological meaning of many words has become obsolete, and they have assumed a new or more modern meaning; many which retain their etymological meaning have other meanings annexed to them; many have both a literal and a metaphorical meaning, and many both a common and a technical meaning,—all which need explanation’ (pp. iv-v). Such an analysis of how meanings change could hardly be improved on today….

Worcester never produced another dictionary and died in 1865. Like Webster, he was extraordinarily productive, not only editing the dictionaries described here but compiling many other valuable reference works in geography and biography, most of them for students. He is a major figure in American lexicography and in any just appraisal of lexicographical quality must be reckoned Webster’s equal. The only arena in which he proved deficient was in commercial success.

There is an extended discussion of the Century Dictionary, a famous landmark in lexicography, beginning “In the history of American lexicography, The Century Dictionary is a dictionary sui generis. There had been nothing like it before and there has been nothing like it since.” Landau identifies its outstanding features as “the extraordinary care taken to produce a well-crafted, handsome set of books,” “the lavish attention and space given over to etymologies, which were the responsibility of Charles P.G. Scott,” and “the coverage given to encyclopedic material, particularly in the sciences and technology.” (The Century Dictionary is available online, I am happy to say.) On the second count, he says:

Some of the etymologies in the Century are immensely long. For example, the etymology for man is fifty-eight column lines long. After the proximate etyma (comparatively recent forms from which the current word was derived) are given, the note speculates about the ultimate origin of the word as relating to the meaning of ‘thinker’, but then dismisses the idea of primitive men as thinkers as ‘quite incredible’. It then goes on to consider other theories. Even relatively uncommon words receive detailed and lengthy etymologies. The etymology for akimbo runs to thirty-three column lines, whereas the rest of the entry devotes about half as much space (seventeen lines) to its definitions and illustrative quotations.

Landau sums up as follows:

The critical reception given the Century was overwhelmingly positive, and it was even compared favorably with the Oxford dictionary then in progress [i.e., the OED]. Yet the high cost of the Century kept it from being accessible to a wider public… [It] failed to sustain a continuing programme of research and revision…, and it could not compete effectively against the new series of unabridged dictionaries of Funk & Wagnalls and G. & C. Merriam…. Yet its comparative neglect is regrettable, as it is a superb dictionary in many respects and still has much to offer to those interested in the vocabulary of its period. It was from the beginning a quixotic venture (as many new dictionaries are), and it occupies a singular place in American lexicography… But as a dictionary that would endure to make a lasting mark on American intellectual life, it cannot be said to have succeeded. The unforgiving demands of the commercial marketplace led dictionary publishers in another direction: towards the creation of ever-larger, single-volume or two-volume unabridged dictionaries that could be sold at an affordable price.

Isaac Funk of Funk & Wagnalls (Adam Wagnalls “was involved purely as the principal investor and never played an editorial role”) broke with “the English tradition begun by Johnson and continued with various modifications by Webster and Worcester”:

First, Funk decreed that the commonest meaning, not the earliest in historical terms, should come first in the sequence of definitions… Next, and at the opposite pole from Whitney, Funk deemed etymology of lesser importance and placed it after the definition at the end of the dictionary entry rather than before the definition… The etymology for man, which occupied fifty-eight lines in the Century, cconsists of ‘< AS. man‘ in the Standard.

During the first third of the 20th century,

the Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries were widely considered on a par with the Webster dictionaries, and the competition between the two companies was just as fierce as the rivalry of an earlier time had been between Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester and their supporters… Gradually, after the publication of the Webster Second Edition in 1934, when there was no response from Funk & Wagnalls in the form of a new edition of its unabridged, the Webster dictionary began to have the field to itself, and, in spite of the publication of a number of new smaller dictionaries in the 1950s and 1960s, the Funk & Wagnalls Company never recovered and indeed struggled to survive as a dictionary publisher.

Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!

Comments

  1. The Century is online at http://www.global-language.com/CENTURY/ , but it requires a plugin for DjVu format, which I have not got. Apparently it’s an image format.

  2. It’s in Google Books as well.

  3. John, the DjVu mechanism is a Java “applet”, not a plugin – meaning that you don’t need to install anything. An applet is a Java program that downloads and runs automatically, like “Flash” movie applications. You might want to read the short “applet” article in wikipedia. (Of course you may know all this already)
    I use the Firefox browser. Unless you have disabled all use of Java (checkbox under the “Content” tab in the toolbar “Preferences”), the DjVu stuff works fine. The Internet Explorer 6 browser works fine as well. At the dictionary site, when you click on a link like “Salsify to Salt (DvVu)”, you are asking to download the picture file. If the “save file” dialog is what you saw, you may have concluded that some software was missing. Just click on the “(Java DjVu)” item to the right of the other one to have the picture display automatically.
    After clicking on one of the “Java DjVu” links you may see a blank page. If you’re impatient, as I am with my super-duper highspeed internet connection, you may think you’re missing some bit of software. Just wait a bit, the page will display. Applets tend to be larger than html pages, so it may take a while for the action to start, as with a Flash movie. How long you wait depends on your internet connection, but also on the response behavior of the site server.
    Initially, because I was impatient, I actually started checking the plugins (“add-ons”) in my Firefox. Then I discovered by searching for DjVu in the internet that it’s an applet.

  4. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Wow, thanks for that, Grumbly Stu. I expect JC knows, he works for Apple, but I never knew what an applet was before now. I wonder what advantage DjVu has over other picture applications.

  5. DjVu is a “computer file format designed primarily to store scanned documents, especially those containing combination of text, line drawings and photographs” (wikipedia). It’s supposed to compress better than PDF. From what I’ve read elsewhere, marketing activities have been half-assed, and the reader software has not been implemented in a user-friendly way. I have to say that the speed, UI and behavior of the applet at this instant of time are unter aller Sau (“worse than a pig”).
    DjVu appears to be one more thing undertaken by Unix geeks who couldn’t sell a mousetrap to a cat. They scorn the expectation of the Windows user base that software has to be visually appealing and easy to use. Their underlying motive can be guessed from the fact that it was Microsoft who created those expectations over time – the time during which Unix geeks did nothing but cast withering glances. Lisp and Prolog are examples of programming languages that never escaped from academia because Unicians are hopeless when it comes to sales-inducing tub-thumping. They preach only to the converted.

  6. A.J.P. Crown says:

    So it’s nothing special. But thanks for the info and of course for the animal metaphors.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Why would you want to sell a mousetrap to a cat? The cat would miss all the fun. Only a severely geriatric cat could be interested.

  8. it requires a plugin for DjVu format
    Aside from all the technical stuff about plugins vs. applets, which I intend to go the rest of my codgery life without understanding, you don’t need to use DjVu (horrible name) at all. As they say in small type in the left column: “To view the DjVu pages with the best functionality, you should install the DjVu Plug-in… Even without the plug-in, you can still view the JPEG equivalent by clicking the ‘(JPEG)’ link.” I do the latter, and I can read the page perfectly well; I don’t know what more you get with “the best functionality”—a free toaster?

  9. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There’s not such thing as a free toaster.

  10. Lisp … programming languages that never escaped from academia because Unicians are hopeless …
    UNIX-HATERS was created by Lisp programmers.

  11. scarabaeus says:

    There are many that think that the gnu should never participate in new fangled, the gnu should always be kept barefoot and ********, like law should be in fine foreign lingo, heaven forbid that they should be able to write to a computer and get it to do things, computers should only be used to get people to hand over monies.
    Long live LISP, it be only for the artificially intelligent.

  12. DjVu appears to be one more thing undertaken by Unix geeks who couldn’t sell a mousetrap to a cat. They scorn the expectation of the Windows user base that software has to be visually appealing and easy to use. Their underlying motive can be guessed from the fact that it was Microsoft who created those expectations over time – the time during which Unix geeks did nothing but cast withering glances.
    One of my favourite UserFriendly strips has a grizzled old *Nix übergeek responding to the question “Have you ever used a GUI?” with “No, but I stepped in some once”. To be fair, that “CLI or Die” mentality seems to be fading ever so slightly, but a quick visit to any Usenet group with “linux” or “foss” in the name will turn up plenty of the tuxaheddin.

  13. When this came across my feedreader, for some reason the font made it look like O HEL ON AMERICAN DICTIONARIES. I wondered why Hat was suddenly Hel on dictionaries and cursing them out; he used to like dictionaries a lot. After reading the post, I am relieved to find out dictionaries are still exhilarating and the earth still revolves around the sun, but I can’t shake off that optical illusion with the acronym.

  14. “Funk & Wagnall” was the punchline of a series of jokes on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In back in the 60’s. I wonder if branding issues with the name had anything to do with the demise of the product.

  15. Why would you want to sell a mousetrap to a cat?

    To earn some money.
    The potential customer base breaks up like this: the youngest cats aren’t much interested in the basic idea, because they are still sowing their wild mice and don’t yet appreciate the conservation of energy. A snazzy, luridly colored trap model with an animated Mighty Mouse Chase game might sell to them. At a later age, the working cat has the money to make life easier for itself with a highspeed trap. An additional incentive to buy might be bonus access to the Mousecatchers of America site, where they can boast about how many mice they trap with our product. For geriatic cats a different approach is recommended, such as a Twilight-of-the-Gods Luxury Tofu Mouse Grill.

  16. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I guess the recession hasn’t hit cats too badly yet.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Why would you want to sell a mousetrap to a cat?
    I guess my question should have been: why would a cat want to buy a mousetrap? I would not have been very good working in advertising. Is that where you are, Grumbly?

  18. I’m not in marketing, Marie-Lucie. I’m not even very good at selling myself, because I tend to believe that my value to an employer should be self-evident. That is the very mistake made by the Unix crowd, and the reason why I get so riled about it. It takes one to scorn one.
    There is an old saying (falsely attributed to Emerson) which apparently expresses the idea that marketing is unnecessary: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”. But what Emerson did write was the opposite – that advertisement is natural and unavoidable:

    I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

    There have been a number of good ideas and technologies created in the Unix community that never gained wider acceptance, because it tends to be as smug as a bug in a rug about the possible value of its productions to other people. The attitude is “take it or leave it”. Hat quotes the following, regarding Webster’s competitor Worcester:

    Worcester never produced another dictionary and died in 1865. Like Webster, he was extraordinarily productive, not only editing the dictionaries described here but compiling many other valuable reference works in geography and biography, most of them for students. He is a major figure in American lexicography and in any just appraisal of lexicographical quality must be reckoned Webster’s equal. The only arena in which he proved deficient was in commercial success.

  19. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I’m not even very good at selling myself
    We’ll give you a reference, Grumbly Stu.
    Is there a German equivalent of the name Stuart? I can’t think of one.

  20. I work for Google, not Apple, and I’ve only been here for a year and a half.
    I am a Unician and CLImeister, and I have Java applets turned off at the moment because there’s a dreadful bug that Firefox has not yet fixed. There is a plug-in, though: “sudo apt-get djvu-plugin” was my friend.
    Stuart = Steward (as in “one who takes care of another’s property”), so make up a German equivalent on the basis of that.

  21. “sudo apt-get djvu-plugin” is, I suppose (there seems to be something missing after apt-get), what a Unix user has to type into the command line to install or update the DjVu plugin.
    Windows users click on a button to get the same result. The command line (CLI) is like that black-background “Dos box” you will remember from the 1980’s.
    John is telling us that he is an arcanus and I am meddling in other people’s business. Fair enough! Pity about Lisp, though.

  22. Is there a German equivalent of the name Stuart? I can’t think of one.
    Back in the long ago days when I was fluent in German, I used to call myself Stig, on the basis that the stig from stigweard sounded more plausibly Germanic than Stuart. The Māori equivalent could be kaitiaki, and “Kai” is not an uncommon name in German, nicht wahr?

  23. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Thanks, Stig.
    Sorry I mixed up Google and Apple, John.

  24. That should have been “sudo apt-get install djvu-plugin”, of course. And no, a Unix (or more accurately Linux) user does not have to type that into the command line. There is the same slow, clunky GUI approach available that’s standard on Those Other Systems.
    It’s just that those of us who can actually, like, type, can do it a better way. But why listen to me, when Master Foo says it so much better?
    Anyhow, I was not intending to show off my arcanus status, I was trying to be helpful to any other Linux weenies here.

  25. The point being that arcane systems provide job security for their designers? I have seen that more than once–kludged together systems that were so esoteric the person who put them together from various vendors had a lifetime position babysitting them. When that person retired, the first time it broke no one else knew what to do and the entire thing had to be replaced at huge expense.

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