The Dictionary Wars

Dictionary Wars coverThe Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language
Peter Martin
Princeton University Press (May 28, 2019)
368 pages
Kindle edition $9.88, Amazon Hardcover $19.03

Noah Webster is known, obviously, for his dictionary of American English. He was, however, not a skilled lexicographer, he was rather thin-skinned, and inserted his religious and moral beliefs into his dictionary entries. The Dictionary Wars describes this complex man and his lexicographical legacy.

It turns out that Webster was highly inconsistent in his original dictionary and was really bad at etymology. He also had some odd ideas about Americanizing spelling to distinguish American English from British. Some of his reforms caught on (“theater” rather than “theatre”), but many of his proposals were just weird, and were reversed in later editions.

The dictionary process became quite the family affair as he recruited his sons-in-law to assist in revisions and abridgements (he had three daughters). All of this was rather interesting, but the descriptions of ongoing battles after Webster’s death over ownership of various editions and whether competing dictionaries had plagiarized Webster became tedious while occupying something like the last third of the book. Those battles ended only with the deaths of those involved in the disputes.

There is some engaging material here, but one has to be a real language nerd to make it all the way through this book. As it was I skimmed the last several chapters.



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