Back in 2009 I was posting enthusiastically about The Oxford History of English Lexicography, and in this post I discussed “Major American Dictionaries,” going straight from Joseph Worcester’s Dictionary of the English Language (1860) to the Century Dictionary (1889) without mentioning “The American Dictionary of 1864, the ‘Webster-Mahn'” (to quote the title of their section on it); at the time, I don’t think I realized quite how groundbreaking it was. Landau (the author of the OHEL chapter) calls it “the first dictionary commonly referred to as ‘the unabridged'” and says “The idea was to instil in the minds of more and more Americans that, apart from the Bible, a big dictionary was the one book they must have.” As it happens, the Merriam-Webster Blog is starting a whole series to mark the 150th anniversary of “the greatest dictionary you have probably never heard of – the 1864 revision of An American Dictionary of the English Language, commonly known as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.” Here‘s the first installment, by John Morse; after acknowledging the “serious competition” of Worcester’s 1846 dictionary, he continues:
Hence, in the mid-1850s Goodrich and the Merriam brothers, George and Charles, began making plans for a new edition that would address the dictionary’s known deficiencies and introduce features that would set it apart from its competition and ensure its long-term survival as America’s leading dictionary.
This was an act of some bravery for several reasons. First, the editors would have to acknowledge the flaws in Webster’s work and establish a new set of standards. This would require both intellectual and commercial courage and some tenacity, as it would meet much resistance, mostly from members of the Webster family.
Second, the Revision, as the project came to be called, would be a huge undertaking for which the company would have to employ a different production model from what had gone before. Previously dictionaries had been largely written by one person, whether it was Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, or Joseph Worcester. But this revision was too big to be a one-person job. So for the first time, the company had to assemble a large editorial team, thereby fundamentally altering the authorship model of dictionaries and introducing a set of management challenges never before encountered.
Third, the project would require a substantial investment, and the economic climate was hardly conducive to such risk-taking. Most of the investment was undertaken during the Civil War, when there were serious questions about how that war and its aftermath would affect the dictionary market.
The Merriams’ bold gamble paid off. The new edition met with near-universal praise and solidified Webster as the preeminent dictionary brand for years to come. […]
Still, the most significant aspect of the Revision was the restructuring of the definitions. Entries were reorganized to remove redundancies and to ensure that each was logically structured, with one numbered sense for each meaning. Senses were reordered to reflect historical succession, and all closely related definitions were gathered under a single numbered sense. New rules were established for when –ed and –ing forms would be entered at their own place, when open compounds should be entered, and how to handle derivative forms ending in suffixes such as –ly and –ment. This was hard and unglamorous work, but it resulted in a set of editorial principles still honored, for the most part, to this day.
Many hands participated in revising the entries, but the two principal defining editors were Professors William D. Whitney and Daniel Gilman of Yale University, and they were clearly intellectually equal to the task. Whitney would go on to become the editor of the much-admired Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia; Gilman would become the first president of Johns Hopkins.
However, the great unsung hero of American lexicography was the man who presided over this entire operation. The premature death of Chauncey Goodrich in 1860, when the project was still in its exploratory phase, led to the accession of Noah Porter. Porter was an excellent choice. […]
The importance of the 1864 revision cannot be overstated. It formed the solid foundation on which all subsequent Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries have been built. And it was well-known to the scholars at Oxford who were already planning the creation of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. As Joshua Kendall, a Noah Webster biographer, states in a 2011 essay about this edition, “The 1864 Webster’s was in many respects the first draft of the OED. With the template for the modern dictionary in place, [James] Murray and his team could focus on expanding the text rather than rethinking the paradigm.”
I’m very much looking forward to future entries; the history of lexicography may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I slurp it up greedily. (I feel obliged, however, to reiterate my long-standing objection to the historical ordering of senses, which delights the specialist and confuses the ordinary user.)
Update. Webster’s After Webster: Part One, the first post in the series, includes this piquant tidbit: “In 1861, Professor Dana took on as an assistant one ‘William C. Minor, M.D.,’ a medical student at Yale who, according to Porter’s account, ‘labored with great ability and zeal.’ Minor, who would labor zealously (not to say madly) for Britain’s New English Dictionary more than a decade later, made his lexicographical start writing definitions for the 1864 American Dictionary.”