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BookThink - Why Some Dictionaries Are Valuable, Others Not ...
And Why Newer Isn't Always Better

by Craig Stark

#43, 23 May 2005

In a recent BookThinker article, Michael Brook made a telling point about mathematics books: they don't behave like most non-fiction books. Their content doesn't obsolesce as it so often does in other, especially scientific fields. As a result, they often hold their value, sometimes take on more, and it's not unusual for mathematics textbooks to be used in classrooms years after their first appearance.

The same can be said of dictionaries but for somewhat different reasons. True, many words more or less retain their meanings over time, but language is a living/dying thing that's forever changing. New words come on board daily; many existing words alter or expand in meaning; slang becomes acceptable usage; some words become obsolete. Yesterday's grammatical taboo often becomes today's shoulder-shrugging why not.

Example - a reader recently questioned a BookThinker article's use of the phrase "very unique." Time was that any competent English teacher would have gotten the ruler out and rapped the knuckles of a student who tried to put this one over. H.W. Fowler himself, writing in Modern English Usage (ca. early 1900's), declares with his typically unflinching certitude that "uniqueness is a matter of yes or no only; no unique thing is more or less unique than another unique thing, as it may be rarer or less rare." And later - "it is nonsense to call anything ... very ... unique."

In the same breath, however, he cites Charlotte Bronte's use of this very phrase, and Fowler must have known that half the battle was already lost. Today this usage goes almost routinely unchallenged. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage cites dozens of examples, many taken from highly respected publications, that qualify the word "unique" with abandon - though there's no shortage of conservative grammarians who still follow H.W.'s advice to the letter.

Which brings me to dictionaries. Vintage dictionaries are sometimes viewed as noble guardians of language as it should be spoken and written - indeed, how it was before it became "corrupted" by slang, sloppy usage, and so on. I'm old enough to recall the storm of protest that broke out when Merriam Webster published its Third New International Dictionary in 1961. Editor Philip Gove believed that a dictionary's function is to record language as it stands at any moment in time, not to serve as an instrument for dictating how it should be. The result was a production that radically departed from Webster's Second, for decades the standard bearer of correct American English, simply because us chickens weren't speaking/writing that language anymore.

This is one important reason why vintage dictionaries retain their value as well as they do, also why Modern English Usage is reprinted ad infinitum. They record what is commonly perceived to be a purer form of English, and having, say, Webster's Second on one's desk - and using it daily - is to some a noble, though perhaps quixotic, defense against creeping permissiveness.

But there's another, more subtle reason why "obsolete" dictionaries retain value, and this is often overlooked if not altogether misunderstood. If language becomes corrupted over time, some would point out that this is an indication or marker that society itself has become corrupted. Decadent societies, to continue the argument, are increasingly composed of those who have abandoned the principles that made them great, and, once abandoned, exhibit a weakened capacity to so much as understand these principles, let alone live by them. Language tags merrily along with this, accurately betrays what's happening, and over time - this is where things get sinister - dictionaries like Webster's Third subtly reinforce the march to ruin.

Far fetched? Well, consider something as seemingly innocuous as the word "feel." Consult a recent edition of any Merriam Webster dictionary for its meaning, and you'll discover that one synonym for "feel" is "think." Many of us use these two words interchangeably and doubtless feel/think that there's nothing wrong with it. You might be interested to know, however, that in Noah Webster's landmark dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828, this meaning is nowhere in sight.

No big deal, you say? Hold on. Could it not be argued that the primary reason the two words are now at least partially synonymous is that our society has elevated feeling to the level of thought - that is, feelings are given an importance in today's society that they weren't in Noah Webster's day? And, when you stop to think about it, it's hardly uncommon for feelings to be given even greater importance than thought. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," Aleister Crowley proclaimed, and this ushered in a generation that plunged headlong into indulgent, feel-good living.

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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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