Thomas Ramey Watson

Webster’s Finest Forgotten Words

October 16 is World Dictionary Day, marking the birthday of the great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Born in Connecticut in 1758, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806, but it was his two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828 (when he was 70 years old) that earned him his place in history as the foremost lexicographer of American English.

The statistics alone speak for themselves: Webster’s American Dictionary took him 28 years to complete. In preparation he learned 26 languages, including Old English, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. The final draft listed and defined 70,000 words, more than any other dictionary in history (and 30,000 more than Samuel Johnson’s dictionary had almost a century earlier). 1 in every 6 of Webster’s words had never been listed in a dictionary before; as a dictionary of American English, he radically chose to include a whole new vocabulary of emerging Americanisms like squash, skunk, hickory, chowder and applesauce for the very first time. And he famously took the opportunity to push through his ideas on English spelling reform – some of which took (center, color, honor, ax), and some of which didn’t (dawter, wimmen, cloke, tung).

Despite all of his efforts, Webster’s dictionary sold just 2,500 copies on its publication and he was compelled to mortgage his home in New Haven to fund a second edition in 1840. Three years later, having never quite gained the recognition his work deserved in his lifetime, he died at the age of 84. Today however, as both a literary and scholarly achievement Webster’s 1828 dictionary is widely regarded as both the first truly comprehensive dictionary of American English, and as one of the most important dictionaries in the history of our language. So to mark World Dictionary Day – and to celebrate what would be Webster’s 256th birthday – here are 26 of some of the most curious, most surprising and most obscure words from Webster’s Dictionary in one handy A to Z.

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