Who wrote the first American dictionary? No, it wasn’t Noah Webster, though if you google “first American dictionary” you’ll get a lot of hits claiming otherwise. It was—and this is one of those useless but delightful historical tidbits—Samuel Johnson Jr. (no relation to the great English lexicographer!) in 1798, beating Webster by eight years. The New York Times wrote a centennial article in 1898, beginning: “The first dictionary by an American author published in this country was Samuel Johnson, Jr.’s, ‘School Dictionary; Being a Compendium of the Latest and Most Improved Dictionaries,’ printed in New Haven in 1798 by Edward O’Brien. The British Museum has a copy presumably perfect; Yale College Library has the Brinley copy, which lacks pages 157-168 out of 198, the total number. No other copies seem to be known.” (Google Books has it, but, infuriatingly, will not let you see even a snippet view.) There’s a nice OUPblog entry about it by Ammon Shea (author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, which I wrote about here) that ends:
I’m not trying to sound a clarion call about how poor Samuel Johnson Jr. has been cheated of his just rewards and fame, nor am I interested in seeing Noah Webster’s memory excoriated any more than it already has been. But I do find it fascinating to observe the different ways that an error may be grown.
Many of the authors who make the claim that Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary were likely aware of the fact that there may have been earlier ones, but for some reason choose to believe that Webster’s was the first one that was a ‘real’ American work, either because it appeared to have more patriotic orthography, or a greater deal of piety. Some others appear to have just relied on some sort of common knowledge which informed them that Webster must have been the first American lexicographer – why else would we hear so much about him?
I used to allow myself a great deal of umbrage when I found errors like this. Why I felt the need to do so is not quite clear to me – after all, I hadn’t made any great discovery myself; I’ve just managed to read one author who has a better grip on the facts than some others. Now I always find it interesting to discover commonly held beliefs that are just wrong – and it helps remind me that I have my own cherished and muddle-headed collection of things that I ‘just know’. And the more that time passes, the more I am convinced that ‘things that I just know’ is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘mistakes’.
You and me both, Ammon.