OHEL ON WEBSTER’S THIRD.

One of the sections I was most anticipating in The Oxford History of English Lexicography (previous posts: 1, 2) was the discussion of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the greatest and most controversial landmarks of American lexicography, and one that came along when I was old enough to be able to use and appreciate dictionaries. I was not disappointed.
The first surprise came right away. I had known the dictionary’s main editor, and the recipient of the brickbats, was Philip Babcock Gove; I hadn’t known that “the publishers originally sought to [appoint a "distinguished academic person"] for the Third Edition, but, although they received valuable help in planning for the new dictionary from prominent academic people, none was willing to assume the editorship, and in the end the publishers turned to an in-house editor, Philip Babcock Gove… Gove was appointed general editor in 1951; no one was appointed editor-in-chief until ten years later, the year of publication, when Gove was officially given that title. Webster’s Third is very much Gove’s dictionary… His was the major voice in determining what entries to include and what to omit; the style of definitions; the attention paid to pronunciation; the use of illustrative quotations, usage labels, and subject labels; and many other decisions which would provoke strong criticism in the years following publication.” Sidney I. Landau, the author of the chapter, describes the environment in which the book appeared, “just at the time when linguists and humanists in universities were most at odds”; Gove was clearly aware of the discoveries of linguistics (he listed basic principles such as that language changes constantly, change is normal, spoken language is the language, and correctness rests on usage), and his personality was such that he “hated to make exceptions, even when the failure to do so created the occasional absurdity, ambiguity, or obfuscation.” With that background, we proceed to the detailed discussion of what were perceived as problems:

For example, Webster’s Third most remarkably capitalizes no entries except God. Up until the first New International of 1909, all entries were capitalized in Webster dictionaries. Webster’s Third professed to contain no encyclopedic entries, and so theoretically would have no need to capitalize anything, but in fact it contains many entries derived from names (such as new yorker), and many names of materials (african teak), flora and fauna (japanese cedar, russian wolfhound), and other entries having geographical or biographical elements (swedish massage, einstein equation). All of these entries include some italicized usage label signifying that the entry is usually or always capitalized, but it remains a puzzle why the editors did not simply capitalize them. The answer may be in Gove’s acceptance of the primacy of the spoken language… The failure to capitalize has been criticized almost universally, even by those with generally positive views of the dictionary….
The colloquial or informal label was dropped completely, and slang is used very sparingly. In America, an informal style of language had become all but universal by the 1950s… There was also the question of the class of people to whom a particular usage was informal. Earlier unabridged dictionaries were addressed to a somewhat restricted, educated class… There is less justification for the sharp reduction in the use of slang label. The Explanatory Notes contain this confusing comment: “No word is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang connotations or used so inappropriately as to become slang.” [Note the undescriptive "inappropriately"! —LH] The possibility of limitless variation is no warrant for the failure to label words as slang.
Apart from all of these changes, the new defining style of the Third set it apart most dramatically… The style avoids commas except to separate items in a series, proscribes semicolons entirely, and relies on a single unbroken description with embedded phrases and clauses following directly upon each part of the definition they modify (very like the second half of this sentence)…. By and large, the new defining style works well, but it takes some getting used to, and sometimes it sacrifices clarity for economy of expression. It is not necessarily more logical than more traditional methods of defining, but Gove evidently admired its straightforward linear drive, like a car in smooth acceleration.

“Like a car in smooth acceleration”! You don’t often see comparisons like that in scholarly tomes.
After praising the detailed pronunciations and revamped etymologies, Landau proceeds to a brilliant “assessment of Webster’s Third“:

Although Gove asserts near the beginning of his preface that the dictionary is not just for the scholar or professional but for the general user without any advanced preparation, the style… does not support such a claim…. In many respects Webster’s Third is a great dictionary, but it is not user-friendly.
Gove placed too much reliance on definitions to provide context of subject, and too much reliance on illustrative quotations to provide guidance for level of usage. The virtual absence of subject labels and the begrudgingly rare use of slang are defects, as is the absurd absence of capital letters in words that are invariably capitalized…. [I]t was mainly Gove’s lack of empathy with the user—perhaps also his lack of sympathy with the user—that made him so inflexible in applying his sets of criteria governing the presentation of his dictionary. The policies Gove promulgated and saw through seemed designed to improve the art of lexicography rather than to produce a fine commercial dictionary. That they did both, in spite of some of the lapses of Webster’s Third, is a testament to the quality of the Merriam staff and to Gove’s integrity and assiduity as a lexicographer.

I find it hard to imagine a fairer summary than that, doing full justice to the greatness of the dictionary (which I am proud to own, and which of course is a rival to Oxford’s many dictionaries) while fully acknowledging the justice of some of the criticisms.

Comments

  1. The “single unbroken description” defining style can get pretty unwieldy. A tree is:

    a woody perennial plant having a single main stem that may be short but is usually considerably elongated, has generally few or no branches on its lower part, and is crowned with a head of branches and foliage or (as in palms) of foliage only

    And a plant of course is:

    any of numerous organisms constituting the kingdom Plantae, being typically characterized by lack of locomotive movement or rapid motor response, by absence of obvious nervous or sensory organs though possessing irritability as indicated by specific response to stimuli, by possession of cell walls composed of cellulose, and by a nutritive system in which carbohydrates are formed photosynthetically through the action of chlorophyll and organic nutrients are not required, and exhibiting a strong tendency to alternation of a sexual with an asexual generation though one or the other may be greatly modified or almost wholly suppressed

    The car might be smoothly accelerating, but that doesn’t make its path any easier to follow.

  2. Richard Sabey says:

    Even more verbosely, a leaf is “a lateral outgrowth from a stem that constitutes part of the foliage of a plant and functions primarily in food manufacture by photosynthesis, that arises in regular succession from the growing point, that consists typically of a flattened green blade which is joined to the stem by a petiole often with a pair of stipules at its base, which in cross section exhibits an outer covering of epidermal cells penetrated by stomata usu. more numerous on the lower surface, which has one or more layers of palisade cells beneath the upper epidermis and between these and the lower epidermis a mass of spongy parenchyma cells, both palisade and spongy tissue being ramified by a network of veins, and that is distinguished from a leaflet, cladophyll or phylloclade by the presence of a bud at the juncture of petiole and stem and from a phyllode by differentiation into blade and petiole”.
    Indeed Webster’s Third contains many entries derived from names; many more entries are from names themselves, unmodified and uncompounded. For example:
    new york: of or from New York, N.Y.: of the kind or style prevalent in New York
    Yes, but of what use is that to someone who looks “New York” up in order to find out about the connotations that name might have?
    You quote Landau: “All of these entries include some italicized usage label signifying that the entry is usually or always capitalized, but it remains a puzzle why the editors did not simply capitalize them. The answer may be in Gove’s acceptance of the primacy of the spoken language…” Gove’s excuse, in the Preface, is his listing, among the features of the dictionary, “the recognition (by beginning entries with a lowercase letter…) that words vary considerably in capitalization according to circumstances and environment”. Indeed they do, but that is not a convincing argument for spelling a word all in lowercase in the dictionary, if its first letter is always spelt in uppercase when the word is actually written. I fail to see Landau’s point about the primacy of the spoken language; how can that explain a curious treatment of an aspect of the written language unless it is considered to have no importance at all?

  3. dearieme says:

    …basic principles…
    “language changes constantly”: he can’t have meant “at constant rate”, so what exactly did he mean?
    “change is normal”: is that what he meant by “language changes constantly”? By “normal” he meant usual or common, I suppose?
    “spoken language is the language”: that sounds like a religious statement, though why anyone would adopt that premise when it pretty much excludes all historical linguistics beats me.
    “correctness rests on usage”: that too sounds religious – or ideological, if you prefer.

  4. that is not a convincing argument for spelling a word all in lowercase in the dictionary
    No, of course not, and virtually nobody was convinced by it, even (as Landau says) fans of the dictionary. But in the larger scheme of things, whether entry words are capitalized or not is a pretty insignificant issue.
    dearieme: I don’t follow you. The statements you quote are perfectly unexceptionable principles of linguistics; there is nothing “religious” or mysterious about them.

  5. jamessal says:

    “language changes constantly”: he can’t have meant “at constant rate”, so what exactly did he mean?
    “Constantly” also means “continuing without pause or letup,” so he meant what he said.
    “just at the time when linguists and humanists in universities were most at odds”; Gove was clearly aware of the discoveries of linguistics
    Bunch of luddites, those humanists. Says Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era (sorry if I’ve quoted this before, I just really really like it):
    “If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.
    Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and the only code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows with this discovery.”

  6. I don’t know if you’ve quoted the passage before, but you have my permission and encouragement to quote it whenever you feel like it; the combination of superb writing with important content makes it well worth repeating.

  7. OK.

    If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.
    Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and the only code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows with this discovery.

  8. OK.

    If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.
    Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and the only code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows with this discovery.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    dearieme: “spoken language is the language”: … that premise … pretty much excludes all historical linguistics …
    That premise has nothing to do with historical linguistics and does not exclude it. Written language largely reflects spoken language, although some long-standing and unreformed written conventions often preserve an earlier aspect of the language, as with “silent” letters reflecting earlier pronunciation (as in knife or daughter), or have sometimes been distorted by more or less competent etymologizing (as in debt). But the meanings of words, and basic morphology and syntax, are the same in speech and writing. Writing sometimes lags behind because literate people (more or less consciously) imitate earlier models, but it eventually keeps up as new features become part of general usage.
    Nor is writing limited to “respectable” productions by “the best authors” or highly educated people: historical linguists have been able to make much use of non-standard writing such as Late Latin graffiti in bathhouses and brothels, or the letters or other unofficial documents produced by barely literate people, reflecting the everyday speech of the time more closely than more learned, often archaizing “classical” texts. Of course, some minute details of pronunciation are lost from the written medium, but often these details can be reconstructed after the fact, through examining the changes in the spellings of different periods. Finally, historical linguistics makes use of written sources when it can but can also be practiced in languages and language groups which have only recently been “reduced to writing”, or in reconstructing language stages beyond recorded language history (Proto-Indo-European being the best-known example, though far from the only one).

  10. jamessal says:

    “Gove” rhymes with “love” or “rove”?

  11. “Interesting” has three syllables or four?

  12. scarabaeus says:

    Language has new boss now, called a computer and it cannot tolerate inconsistencies, a ‘uman can decipher fcuk or f*ck but the programmer has to be shown all the ways mind can create an intolerable word.
    Once upon a time the masses [gnu] had voice that one would or would not understand unless it passed the academic filter for [h]eyes or [h]ears now it has to pass the google [still not in word acceptance test] test.
    Oh! well I bee working hard or bee it hardly working.

  13. “Gove” rhymes with “love” or “rove”?
    The latter; like Gow, it’s from Irish gobha ‘smith’ (pronounced /go(v)ə/).
    “Interesting” has three syllables or four?
    Either. I say it both ways at different times.

  14. jamessal says:

    Thanks, Hat!

  15. marie-lucie says:

    “interesting”: Californians say it “inneresting” with four syllables. I think that most others say “intresting” with three.

  16. i have an unabridged W2 & W3 also; i wouldn’t be without either one of them (like a right and a left hand). lots of ex-library copies are still kicking around. they do consume a lot of space, though, & in my 6th decade i need extra strong reading glasses to properly peruse the print… i pity those who try to make do with the internet. a good dictionary is my favorite thing to browse.
    sometimes i write a poem just to use a short list of new words i’ve run across, there.
    m.

  17. m-l: Californians say it “inneresting” with four syllables.
    Is that a Californian thing? I didn’t know that. When I was a student at Columbia we had one professor, originally from upstate New York, who always said it.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, you could be right, as I am by no means an expert on American regional differences, and I live in Canada, but it seems to me that I have heard the t- less pronunciation from Californians rather than from people from other areas. (Perhaps your prof had studied in California?)

  19. I am vindicated! All three Spanish dictionaries in my classroom say four syllables. I wasn’t going to correct the students’ pronunciation though since I can understand them. I just want them to say “listen” and “answer” without pronouncing the silent letters.

  20. The Kenner quote (from The Pound Era) perpetuates the canard that “ain’t” was first entered in Webster’s Third. It had been entered in Webster’s Second in 1934, labeled “dialectal or illiterate.”
    This is a good example of the sometimes immoderate and uninformed criticism of the Third — and also a good example of the kind of prejudice Gove worked to remove from the dictionary.

  21. “Canard”. Mmmmmmm…. with the skin on, of course. I love canards.

  22. “Canard”. Mmmmmmm…. with the skin on, of course. I love canards.

  23. jamessal says:

    If Kenner’s sentence — “The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62″ — is “a good example of the sometimes immoderate and uninformed criticism of the Third,” then the Third ain’t got much to worry about.
    And yes, JE, skin on — very funny.

  24. It is amazing to see how many changes are made to a dictionary in every edition!!! I am actually in shock haha!
    -Mina

  25. Why is it that there is such a demand for wedding dresses to be altered between the time that measurements were taken and the event itself. Is it something to do with pregnancy?

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Around the time my stepdaughter was planning her wedding, I learned (never having had a traditional formal wedding myself) that many brides order their dress months in advance, and that it is recommended to order it one size bigger then normal, and then have it altered just before the wedding. Ditto for buying a ready-made dress in a store (my stepdaughter bought hers on sale). The larger size allows for alterations, a snug size would not, especially if the bride had gained weight (never mind the reason) in the meantime. Alterations are almost always necessary anyway for a form-fitting dress, as nobody has the exact same shape.

  27. Once again I am educated in ways I never would have expected when starting the thread.

  28. Actually I have exactly the same shape. But I’m unique in lots of ways.

  29. Actually I have exactly the same shape. But I’m unique in lots of ways.

  30. Thanks, Marie-Lucie.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    JE, I doubt you would fit into what is usually considered suitable for a wedding dress.

  32. Don’t let them put you off having a big white wedding, John. They’re just jealous.

  33. We don’t know the exact details of JE’s “uniqueness”, but if he needs wedding alterations he should check out AJP’s goat site.

  34. Those Norwegians are used to fitting the goat-tailed Huldre folk for weddings.

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