THE FIRST AMERICAN DICTIONARY.

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.

Comments

  1. The British Library has the 1802 edition. Sadly the 1798 edition, assuming there is one, is not on ECCO, otherwise I could have sent it to you.

  2. Ah wait, it has “1802?” so perhaps it is 1798 after all.

  3. Bill Walderman says:

    Does anyone know how Samuel Johnson, Jr. spelled “honor?”

  4. It’s in Evans.

  5. Hon or a ry, a. done in honour

  6. He also forgot Aardvark.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmwIvVUc62Y
    ttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0526724/quotes

  7. The first proper dictionary written by a British author but published in an American edition, on the other hand, seems to have been William Perry’s 1788 Royal Standard English Dictionary. The title page is truly a fine specimen of the eighteenth-century idea of “value-add”:

    The Royal Standard
    ENGLISH DICTIONARY.
    In which the
    WORDS are not only rationally DIVIDED into Syllables, accurately ACCENTED, their Part of Speech properly distinguished, and, their various Significations arranged in one Line; but,
    likewise, by
    A KEY to this WORK,
    Comprising the various SOUNDS of the Vowels and Consonants, denoted by TYPOGRAPHICAL CHARACTERS, and illustrated by EXAMPLES, which render it intelligible to the weakest Capacity,
    it EXHIBITS their
    P R O N U N C I A T I O N,
    According to the present Practice of
    Men of Letters, eminent Orators, and polite Speakers in London,
    Upon a PLAN perfectly PLAIN, and entirely NEW.
    To which is PREFIXED, a COMPREHENSIVE,
    GRAMMAR of the ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
    TO THE WHOLE IS ADDED,
    The SCRIPTURE proper NAMES in the Old and New Testaments,
    Names of the principal Cities, Rivers, Mountains, &c in the known World:
    Also, the ancient and modern Poets, Philosophers, and Statesmen, &c.
    With their proper PRONUNCIATION pointed out.

  8. Grumbly Stu says:

    the ancient and modern Poets, Philosophers, and Statesmen, &c.
    With their proper PRONUNCIATION pointed out.

    Does anyone know of a reference for the PRONUNCIATION of the names of academics, scientists and writers of the last, say, 100 years? I know that the names of antient dead WASPS can be found in works like the Unabridged Webster’s, but one doesn’t always have that to hand.
    Here are my desiderata:

    1. To be (able to be kept) up-to-date, the reference would have to be on the net.

    2. It should have audio samples, not IPA renderings.

    3. To prevent many unnecessary discussions, the reference should give the pronunciation of the names used by the bearers, when they are still alive. Failing that, the pronunciation used in the country of origin or existence (of person and name) should be given prominence.

    4. Pronunciations used in countries other than those of origin or existence can be provided, but this is not a must (initially).

    5. I wouldn’t mind, initially, if there were a Euro-American-Slavic bias to the choice of people. Wolf Lepenies, deBroglie, Houellebecq (in fact every third French person), Mandelshtam, Coetzee, Charles Pierce …

    6. The language background of the sample speakers should be specified, natch, to avoid tiresome challenges on the grounds of prescriptivist tendencies.

    If there isn’t such a thing, or no comprehensive one, how about us (we) LH folks knocking one together? I can probably rustle up a server, and in any case customize the site software. Some things like audio modules I know nothing about, but then there are people like Adrian who probably do.

  9. A.J.P. Crown says:

    OOH. A project. MMcM knows a lot about computers (like you, Grumbly Stu).

  10. Grumbly Stu says:

    I want this thing to be pragmatic. I can deal with all the backend (database) stuff. Maybe someone like MMcM might want to help with the frontend (although I appreciate a good layout, I hate having to cope with that font, codepage and byte-hole (input) stuff).
    First we have to see who’s interested.

  11. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I want this thing to be pragmatic.
    You’ve been reading too many of those American philosophers, Grumbly Stu.

  12. Grumbly Stu says:

    What do you think of “whatakant” as site name?

  13. What about Forvo?
    http://forvo.com/

  14. Grumbly Stu says:

    Thanks, Nijma, but I find Forvo to be scatty. Anything can be put there by anyone. One, it’s only proper names that I’m interested in. Two, I want a smallish set of speakers who can refer others if the need or wish arises.
    The starting group would be people from LH, I hope. I don’t conceive of this as a Democratic Thing – but nor as an Elitist Thing. Rather, it should work pragmatically, which means that a very small number of like-minded editors make decisions, und basta.

  15. A wonderful idea, Grumblich. I would amend one of your prescriptions to this:

    It should have audio samples and IPA renderings.

    And with others too I’d switch to include options rather than exclude them.
    What are the dates for this Johnson, active at the close the 18th century? There were so many by that name, but none of these listed at Wikipedia seems to be our man.
    One “other” Samuel Johnson bestowed upon the American people a certain word. (Note the printer. That’s misleading; it’s probably Benjamin Trevor Franklin III, not the famous kite-flying womaniser.)

  16. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yeah, whatakant, kantfindit, something kant-like. Oops, gotta go.

  17. Grumbly Stu says:

    I just discovered that for my entire life I have mistaken the meaning of “scatty”. I meant disorganized / disheveled.

  18. Does anyone know of a reference for the PRONUNCIATION of the names of academics, scientists and writers of the last, say, 100 years?
    The closest thing I know of is this; it’s not altogether reliable, as I noted when I wrote about it, but it’s better than nothing. It would be nice to have a better one, more skewed in the direction we foppish cultural elitists are interested in, but of course we’d have to be severe about making sure entries are accurate and not just good guesses.
    I just discovered that for my entire life I have mistaken the meaning
    Heh. I’m just about to do a post on that phenomenon!

  19. Grumbly Stu says:

    And with others too I’d switch to include options rather than exclude them

    Point taken, Mister N. The “exclusions” were meant merely to forestall discussions about how much is needed to get the thing off the ground. Comprehensiveness is best introduced peu à peu, à mon avis.

  20. Grumbly Stu says:

    [LH: from your post] Library of Congress Talking Books for the Blind

    Now there’s an excellent contact I’m going to make. I conclude from the discussion subsequent to your post that there were no audio bites on the site (there still aren’t). I’d have thought that was the first thing the Talking Books people would have wanted to provide.

    more skewed in the direction we foppish cultural elitists are interested in, but of course we’d have to be severe about making sure entries are accurate and not just good guesses.

    I would propose exactly that as the mission statement. No guessing!

  21. Grumbly Stu says:

    The site will definitely have an entry point adapted for use by the blind – voice mails for questions, downloading in different audio formats, voice-controlled navigation etc. are things that spring to mind.
    By “will definitely have” I mean that I personally will ensure that this happens. I will need to liase with the specialist organizations, because I know nothing about the tools and practices that for a certainty are already available.

  22. mollymooly says:

    Grumbly Stu:

    I just discovered that for my entire life I have mistaken the meaning of “scatty”. I meant disorganized / disheveled.

    OED:

    Of a person: scatter-brained; driven distracted, mad; of a story, etc.: illogical and absurd.

    My mother uses “scatty” to describe herself when she forgets where she’s left her glasses.

  23. To me the word is unfamiliar, but I’d assume it meant “scat-like” or “pertaining to scats”. Or maybe a kind of singing that’s sort of scat singing, or similar to scat singing, but not quite. Or in a pinch, scattered in a sort of derogatory, casual way.

  24. To me the word is unfamiliar, but I’d assume it meant “scat-like” or “pertaining to scats”. Or maybe a kind of singing that’s sort of scat singing, or similar to scat singing, but not quite. Or in a pinch, scattered in a sort of derogatory, casual way.

  25. Google Book Search “has” this work only in the sense that they have a more or less complete bibliographical reference to it; there’s no reason to believe that they’ve scanned it but are refusing to make the scan available. There are gobs of out-of-print books that exist in GBS only as references.
    Consider Deadly Silents (1981) by Lee Killough, one of my favorite detective sf novels. GBS knows it exists because there is an Elsie record, but the book predates the widespread use of PDFs by publishers, and probably isn’t in the libraries that Google deals with. So all you get for it is a bare reference. It’s not at all a matter of “Google won’t let you see it”; Google has nothing to show or not show you.
    (Disclaimer: I work for Google, but know little about GBS, and I’m not telling you anything confidential.)

  26. Google Book Search “has” this work only in the sense that they have a more or less complete bibliographical reference to it; there’s no reason to believe that they’ve scanned it but are refusing to make the scan available.
    Ah, that makes sense, but they’re sure shooting themselves in the foot by not making that clearer.

  27. Grumbly Stu says:

    My mother uses “scatty” to describe herself when she forgets where she’s left her glasses.

    That’s the kind of association I always had. Now I remember my mother’s using it that way. She’s from Mississippi. It was the OED entry you put up here, and the one in Webster’s Collegiate, that made me think I had misunderstood the word. How do they get from “scatter-brained” to “driven distracted, mad; of a story, etc.: illogical and absurd”?

  28. Isn’t scat a fancy word for animal poo? Not the kind your neighbor’s dog leaves in the yard, but the fancy archaeological kind that proves what kind of animals some culture kept and whether they had parasites.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t know about “fancy”, “technical” would seem more appropriate, used by wildlife biologists or others with a professional interest in the substance, more than by the general public. It seems to be used only about wild animals, for instance “we found a lot of bear scat near the blueberry bushes along the river”.

  30. Ah, bear scat. I must have heard it on the Appalachian trail. If you’re going to sleep in bear country, it might be worth while knowing about the critters’ comings and goings.
    “Fancy” is an informal way of saying “big word”. Especially since “scat” only has four letters.

  31. scarabaeus says:

    “yer be scatter brained ” oh! scatty one

  32. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Isn’t scat a fancy word for animal poo?
    You’re thinking of what’s known as a scratty box.
    There’s something called ‘scat singing’, which is a way for white people who can’t play an instrument to pretend they’re jazz musicians.

  33. Oh, like that most famous of scat singers, Ella Fitzgerald?
    What about “scat!” as an imperative?

  34. Oh, like that most famous of scat singers, Ella Fitzgerald?
    Much as I love her Songbook recordings, I can’t stand her scat singing (or anybody’s but Pop’s, really). I hate that live recording where she makes a mockery of the lovely tune “How High the Moon” by scatting the bejesus out of it.
    What about “scat!” as an imperative?
    Excellent question! The OED says “? identical with ‘ss cat!’ (i.e. a hiss followed by the word cat) used in driving away cats”; we’ll see if they stick to that when they get around to revising S. Surprisingly, the oldest citation is from 1838 (‘T. TITTERWELL’ Yankee Notions 52 Drive her away! ‘scat her away! Ibid. 56 Stop, there! whisht! scat!), and all the 19th-century cites are American (the first U.K. one is 1931, from Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady: “Shoo! Shoo! Scat! We’ve got a policeman coming”).

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    What, they’re saying it’s got nothing to do with ‘scatter’? It must at least be a combined source, or whatever the OED calls such things.

  36. Christophe Strobbe says:

    Ammon Shea wrote a book about the OED after reading it only ONCE??!

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