The Revision (1864).

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.”


  1. Hat, no need to apologise. Lexicography is a fascinating field. The OED is one of the world’s great linguistic achievements. It embodies a philosophical approach to language that didn’t just emerge fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead (pronounced ‘forrid’).

    Compare it with The Dictionary of Standard Chinese, which is covered by Bruce Humes at New Chinese Dictionary: Just Another Reason Why Translators Need Google. Of course they are two different types of dictionary, but the two approaches to creating “the dictionary of a language” could not be in starker contrast.

  2. Yes, it’s interesting to compare “the dictionary of a language” around the world. The Russian cultural equivalent is Dahl, which is a wonderful work in its own right but has no word histories, hardly any literary citations, and only the most cursory and obvious etymologies; it is, on the other hand, chock-full of proverbs, a specialty of Dahl’s. There are of course more modern and scientific dictionaries, but still nothing remotely comparable to the OED.

  3. Any major dictionary is a huge intellectual challenge; management and commercial challenges are surely important aspects of such an endeavor too.

    But there’s a technical side we often don’t think about: Until the late 1800s, all entries were prepared in longhand and type was set by hand. Proofs were corrected by hand, and then the work was letterpress-printed and bound. The linotype came into use around the same time as the typewriter, both huge boons to efficiency, but it was only in the 1950s that a dictionary project could even consider using a computer to store information and offset lithography to print the work.

    The invention of the typewriter was of no help to those preparing multi-alphabet dictionaries. It must have been well into the 1930s or even later before hand-written file cards gave way to better systems. I’m not sure when typesetting machines were developed that could handle more than one alphabet – I suppose a linotype could be adapted if italic or boldface type were given up, but setting right-to-left alphabets would have been a Nimitz-class headache. It’s likely only since the development of the personal computer and WYSIWYG software that this kind of work became easy.

    I’ve often wondered about the mental state of the Brown-Driver-Briggs workers. That dictionary was begun in the late 19th century and completed in the early years of the 20th. It contains information in several alphabets, both right- and left-reading. If they weren’t mad when they started, they surely were when they finished.

  4. Paul: I’ve wondered about projects like this as well. As another example, how did they find typesetters with the stamina to put together the hundreds of volumes of Migne’s Patrologia, packed with densely printed theology in Latin and Greek?

  5. And let’s not forget the Biblia Hexaglotta.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    NB that Whitney was not merely a generic professor but a Sanskritist/Indo-Europeanist (with German grad-school training, as was de rigeur in those days) whose eventual formal title was Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology. On at least some accounts he was the first faculty member at any U.S. university who would likely have been slotted into a linguistics department once such entities (and discipline-specific departmental structures generally, which weren’t really a thing for U.S. faculties in the 1850’s) came into existence. Gilman was obviously a successful and well-connected guy but I can’t figure out from wikipedia if he had much of a scholarly specialty, much less one relevant to lexicography. But perhaps the herding-cats skill set necessary for a university president would also be handy in managing the sort of team effort needed for the dictionary?

  7. David Marjanović says:

    There are of course more modern and scientific dictionaries, but still nothing remotely comparable to the OED.

    German has Grimm’s, which… basically only linguists even know about, because it’s now being updated for the first time. It’s a museum of a museum.

  8. In response to Y: Migne would take anyone (and underpay them) but had an elaborate system for correcting proofs. See God’s Plagiarist, by R. Howard Bloch

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