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It's no secret that sacrifice, hard work, longsuffering, etc., were championed with far greater vigor in this country's early years, and feelings were much more likely to be given a back seat. "What's that? You don't feel like hoeing beans from sunup to sundown today? Too bad, kid. Here's your hoe."

Indulging our feelings, letting them lead us by the nose at the expense of thought (or principle), has more than once been cited as a central corrupting force in American society. Corrupt or not, the cart is becoming the horse, and vice versa. To the extent that one believes a return to traditional values is laudable, vintage dictionaries can facilitate the journey.

There's more.

Noah Webster was a devout Christian. He believed that education could only be truly meaningful if it was founded on Biblical principles. Thus, he persistently defined and/or illustrated meanings of words with Biblical passages. Look, for example, at the definition for "father." He cites 12 variations in meaning for this word and uses dozens of Biblical citations and references to illustrate them - and this is done whether they have a Biblical connection or not. The most common meaning of "father" - "he who begets a child" - is illustrated with these two verses and none other:

"The father of a fool hath no joy. Prov. xvii."

"A wise son maketh a glad father. Prov. x."

Consult Webster's Third, on the other hand, and meaning variants have been narrowed to 8 - and guess what? Not a solitary Biblical reference.

Whether you agree with Noah Webster's approach or not, whether you see dictionaries (or society) as having evolved or devolved in the last 177 years, if we, as booksellers, understand what separates the 1828 dictionary from most modern dictionaries, we'll also understand why it has enhanced value. Also why The Webster Bible (Noah Webster's revision of the KJV) and his classic Blue-Backed Speller (which is packed with Biblical verse) have value. (For that matter, The Oxford English Dictionary itself is no stranger to Biblical citations, and this is most assuredly a value enhancing factor.) All three of Webster's productions intend to not only clarify the meanings and usage of words but also to advance Christian principles. The Devil's Dictionary, in this context, wasn't penned by Ambrose Bierce but quietly knitted together by none other than Philip Gove.

Webster's approach was different from Gove's in one other respect. In part, Webster recorded language as it was; to some extent, however, he was plainly prescriptive. His work often focused on how things should be, not how they were, and at times he took the liberty to flat out invent new spellings and meanings to express his vision. Leaving religion aside, this also explains enhanced values of vintage dictionaries - at least to the extent that readers understand them to be linguistic models of perfection.

So, there you have it. As a bookseller, you can use this information to your advantage because it's expansive. If you understand why home schoolers buy modern reprints of Webster's 1828 dictionary, you'll also see why other classics have both collectible and content value in today's society. Remember this the next time you see a McGuffey Reader.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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