WEBSTER’S DAILY.

Josh Wallaert has had the wonderful idea of blogging “Found poetry from the first edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). A new definition every day.” I had no idea Webster was such a creative and lyrical lexicographer, from the short and sweet:

Crowd, n.
An instrument of music with six strings; a kind of violin.

or

Holloa, exclam.
A word used in calling.
Among seamen, it is the answer to one that hails, equivalent to,
I hear, and am ready.

to the more discursive:

Badger, n.
A quadruped of the genus Ursus, of a clumsy make, with short, thick legs, and long claws on the fore feet. It inhabits the north of Europe and Asia, burrows, is indolent and sleepy, feeds by night on vegetables, and is very fat.
Its skin is used for pistol furniture; its flesh makes good bacon, and its hair is used for brushes to soften the shades in painting. The American badger is called the ground hog, and is sometimes white.

I’ve read that several times now, and I like it better each time: “Its skin is used for pistol furniture; its flesh makes good bacon, and its hair is used for brushes to soften the shades in painting.” (By the way, Jill Lepore had an excellent piece in the November 6 New Yorker, “Noah’s Mark: Webster and the original dictionary wars”; it’s not online, but if you have access to that issue it’s a good read.)
Update. In September 2008, Josh said: “After two years, this little corner of the internet has closed shop. You’re welcome to stick around and check out the Webster’s Daily archives.”

Comments

  1. I think I read once that Webster’s defined oats as something along the lines of “a cereal eaten by horses in England and people in Scotland.”

  2. Russell Borogove says:

    I’m puzzled as to why Webster thinks badger is Ursus — everything in the modern genus Ursus is recognizably a bear, including nothing smaller than the 65kg Sun Bear. Has taxonomy changed so much between 1828 and now?

  3. “The Asiatic stink badgers of the genus Mydaus were formerly included in the Melinae, but recent genetic evidence indicates that these are actually Old World relatives of the skunks (family Mephitidae).” (Wiki)
    The badger definition is bad enough to be a hoax. Ground hogs are rodents, badgers are in the same family as weasels.

  4. Crowd, n.
    An instrument of music with six strings; a kind of violin.
    O yes. And we should record here its origin: Welsh crwth, which is a word in English also, and famous (along with cwm, cognate with coomb, meaning valley) for having a vocalic w.

  5. …”a cereal eaten by horses in England and people in Scotland.”
    Ran, that was Samuel Johnson’s characterisation of oats, in his dictionary.

  6. Weber put a crwth into his book on music to make people think that he knew what he was talking about.

  7. Yes John. And a crwde ploy it was.

  8. Isn’t that oats thing Johnson’s? It’s sounds more like the sorta insult an Englishman would use.

  9. Emerson: it wouldn’t surprise me. I advised Josh last week to include some made-up (or altered)definitions on his website. And we all know how much you love hoaxes!

  10. of a clumsy make
    Dunno about you, but I just love this one. If I were one to post personal ads, I’d definitely include these words in mine.

  11. Noetica:
    aren’t you forgetting cwrw?
    John, re hoax: I found the same entry here. So if it’s a hoax, it’s a conspiracy, too.

  12. Ummm… W is a fairly common vowel in Welsh, so if you’re trying to think of words that have it, the list would be quite long. It would include one of my favorites (I’m not sure why, though): cwn, the plural of ci – dogs – as in the Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of the Otherworld.
    They certainly don’t have to start with C, either, viz dwfr, dŵr (water) or pwdlyd (sulky) or nwy (gas) or llwfr (coward) or gŵr (man) or gweithredwr (executive) etc.

  13. so if you’re trying to think of words that have it, the list would be quite long
    Not all of them, just the famousest ones :o)

  14. Bulbul:
    aren’t you forgetting cwrw?
    Precisely to the extent that you are forgetting crwm.

  15. Precisely to the extent that you are forgetting crwm.
    Is it something I can drink?

  16. Don’t forget Crowdero, the fiddler who fights with the killjoy hero of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras:
    I’ the head of all this warlike rabble,
    CROWDERO march’d, expert and able.
    Instead of trumpet and of drum,
    That makes the warrior’s stomach come,
    Whose noise whets valour sharp, like beer
    By thunder turn’d to vinegar,
    (For if a trumpet sound, or drum beat,
    Who has not a month’s mind to combat?)
    A squeaking engine he apply’d
    Unto his neck, on north-east side,
    Just where the hangman does dispose,
    To special friends, the knot of noose…

  17. The 1828 Webster on oats:
    “The meal of this grain, oatmeal, forms a considerable and very valuable article of food for man in Scotland, and every where oats are excellent food for horses and cattle.”
    I’m very fond of this dictionary, even though it is reproduced and distributed by the Foundation for American Christian Education, and even though Webster sometimes defined words as he thought they should be defined, not as they were used. (Goodness is: “The moral qualities which constitute christian excellence; moral virtue; religion.”) But the prose is lucid, and it is useful for checking 19th century meanings and usage.
    Under “goose” he writes: “The Danish and German is grans, but whether the same same word or not, let the reader judge.”

  18. Be that as it may concerning Webster, Johnson certainly is responsible for the original calumny against the Scots. The matter receives a few mentions in Boswell’s Life, also, including this:
    After musing for some time, he said, “I wonder how I should have any enemies; for I do harm to nobody.” BOSWELL. “In the first place, Sir, you will be pleased to recollect, that you set out with attacking the Scotch; so you got a whole nation for your enemies.” JOHNSON. “Why, I own, that by my definition of oats I meant to vex them.” BOSWELL. “Pray, Sir, can you trace the cause of your antipathy to the Scotch?” JOHNSON. “I cannot, Sir.” BOSWELL. “Old Mr. Sheridan says, it was because they sold Charles the First.” JOHNSON. “Then, Sir, old Mr. Sheridan has found out a very good reason.”

  19. Russell: In 1766 Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae had in the genus Ursus four species: the bear, U. Arctos; the badger, U. Meles; the raccoon, U. Lotor; and the wolverine, U. luscus.
    (Working before the rule of ‘capitalize the genus, lowercase the species,’ Linnaeus’ rule for taxonomic names was ‘capitalize nouns, lowercase adjectives’.)
    Webster’s 1828 is not long after this, though by the time of Webster 1913 the badger is already given as “of the genus Meles or of an allied genus”.

  20. Doug Sundseth says:

    “It would include one of my favorites (I’m not sure why, though): cwn, the plural of ci – dogs….”
    I’m no sort of linguist, but isn’t that pretty much the same in ancient Greek – kunavrion or kuon? (I think the older form of the transliteration was “cyn-”, as in Cynoscephalae.)

  21. It is possible that the badger is a “ground hog” in some dialects of American.

  22. Now if Webster’s contained hidden haikus – that would be impressive.
    “Indolent”? “of a clumsy make”? Sneering calumnies against a vigororous but nocturnal animal

  23. “A quadruped
    of clumsy make with short, thick legs
    and very fat.”
    Doesn’t quite fit the haiku format (lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, total 17 syllables according to my edition of Webster’s).

  24. marie-lucie says:

    the badger: “its skin is used for pistol furniture”: pistol furniture ????
    “its fur is used for brushes to soften the shades in painting”: in French “un blaireau” is not only a badger but a shavebrush, as this type of brush is supposed to be made with badger hairs.
    I confess that I have never seen a badger in the flesh. I always thought that it was a smallish animal (though larger than a weasel or ferret) and I was astonished to discover from the link how big it actually is – easily like a medium-size dog, except for its little short fat legs. Perhaps this is why basset hounds were bred to have short legs – to be in effect “tame badgers” and go into other animals’ burrows?

  25. pistol furniture ????
    This is a now obsolete sense of furniture: ‘accessories, appendages.’

  26. marie-lucie says:

    yes, but what could be the furry appendages of a pistol???

  27. yes, but what could be the furry appendages of a pistol???
    At a guess, cleaning brushes. You’d need a swab to clean the barrel, and little brushes to clean and lubricate all the workings. I imagine a fussy 1820s gunman would have all the accessories in a fitted case.
    A quadruped of clumsy make
    with short, thick legs and very fat.

    Sounds like the first two lines of a quatrain.
    “Dress him well and boil or bake,
    But do not wear him for a hat.”

  28. marie-lucie says:

    thank you for the explanation, HP – i am about as well acquainted with pistols as with badgers. I love the quatrain too.

  29. Badgers are occasionally seen around here, and I am looking forward to seeing one someday, as two of my friends have.

  30. Doug: You bet. The Indo-European root is *kuon. The Germanic consonant-shift changed the original /k/ to /x/, giving us “hound” in Modern English, though that has a more specialized meaning. “Dog” is of unknown etymology.

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