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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 9/13/2021

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 2:43 PM Pacific


  02:50 PM

One of my favorite themes regarding language history is to note that objections that people have today about neologisms or usage simply echo the similar sentiments of their ancestors, with the difference that our elders' objections were to terms and usages to which we never give a second thought today.

The New Yorker obliges me[1] this week with an article ("Noah's Mark" by Jill Lepore) about the rocky history of Noah Webster's famous American Dictionary of the English Language (whose title was toned down from the originally more radical Dictionary of the American Language, with its suggestion of a new language -- quite consciously by Webster -- and that "America should have her own, distinct from all the world.")

The article notes the curious dichotomy between Webster's political views (Federalist practically to the point of monarchical) and his unexpected (and generally unpopular) view about the republican nature of language. As much as he distrusted the role of the common man in government, he deferred to him in linguistic issues:
The lexicographer's business is solely to collect, arrange and define the words that usage presents to his hands. He has no right to proscribe words; he is to present them as they are.

[...]

"I am accused of introducing into my Dictionary Americanisms and vulgarisms," he wrote. But what is a lexicographer to do when the people of Connecticut use the word "fourfold" as a verb?" "It this my fault?" he asked. [A critic] had attacked his inclusion of the lowly word "crock" ("n. an earthen pot, pan, black of a pot"), on the ground that no refined writer would ever use it. Webster demanded, "Shall its use among common people exclude it from Dictionaries? Elegant writers seldom have occasion for terms that are peculiar to the humble occupations of life. Dryden and Addison might have written ten times the number of volumes which they actually wrote, and never have had occasion to mention the hub or tire of a wheel. And what then? Are these, for that reason, to be denounced as illegitimate words or not English?"
It was not just Webster who ran into this resistance. Efforts by other dictionary writers met similar commentary:
Two American dictionaries, published just months before, had been badly drubbed, too. The first promised "a number of words in vogue not found in any dictionary." One reviewer, dismissing "sans culotte," "hauter," and "composuist" as, respectively, French, not even a word, and just plain silly, deemed the dictionary "at best, useless." No better were notices of the Massachusetts minister Caleb Alexander's "Columbian Dictionary," containing "Many NEW WORDS, peculiar to the United States." "A disgusting collection" of idiotic words coined by "presumptuous ignorance," one critic wrote, referring to Americanisms like "wigwam," "rateability," "caucus," and "lengthy" (lengthy? what's next, "strenghty?"). "The Columbian Dictionary," as he saw it, was nothing more than "a record of our imbecility."
The article goes on to note that two factors probably ensured the eventual success of Webster's dictionary. One was that Federalism (in that particular guise) faded away, replaced by the Republicanism and populism exemplified by Andrew Jackson as president. "It also helped that he abandoned simplified spelling," Lepore notes, limiting himself to small changes like removing extraneous k's (critic) and u's (favor).

Even so, critics still complain about the Websterian inclusiveness (#). Lepore notes that a critic in the New Yorker had reviewed the infamous Webster's Third by saying that it debased the language "in the name of democracy."

Some arguments are never settled, and this is one of them, because it gets at issues that are more fundamental than just whether "crock" is a word. Still, it's good to remember that when it comes to objecting to how others use the language, there is nothing new under the sun.


[1] But does not oblige me by putting the article online. Weasels.

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