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.