Joseph Emerson Worcester produced a better dictionary than Noah Webster

September 8, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

If any American name is associated with dictionaries, it is Noah Webster.

The name we should remember, however, is Joseph Emerson Worcester.

Webster, whom I wrote about last year, made a fortune by producing the Blue Back Speller and by his determination, in the early days of the Republic, to produce a dictionary that put forward American words with American definition and American spellings.

That he did, finally, in 1828 after years of work, a religious conversion, a refusal to expand his reach beyond New England, and largely fanciful and meaningless trips into the supposed etymologies of words. In addition, Webster was a prickly, difficult personality whose dislike of Samuel Johnson was well known, even though he ended up borrowing many of Johnson’s definitions for his own use.

When his bulky dictionary appeared, it was immediately apparent that an abridgment was necessary, and that was undertaken by his son-in-law, Yale professor Chauncey Goodrich. He invited Worcester, then a Yale graduate student who was working on a dictionary of his own, as a collaborator.

Worcester, unlike Webster, was a thoughtful analysis, careful researcher, and largely free of the religious cant that had invaded many of Webster’s definition. Worcester knew the field of etymology in ways that had eluded Webster.

Webster died in 1843, and Worcester’s dictionary was published in 1848 to great reviews and wide acclaim. It was indeed superior to Webster’s work, and that should have clinched it in favor of Worcester. It didn’t.

It didn’t because of two publishers, Charles and George Merriam, who had gone to some lengths to buy the rights to Webster’s work. They knew the value of a brand, and they lacked the scruples to protect it honestly. What they did, and what they said about Worcester is chronicled in a new book by Peter Martin titled The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight Over the English Language.

The book has received excellent reviews from the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. Writing for the latter publication, Christopher Benfy says:

A largely forgotten figure in American letters, Worcester comes across, in Martin’s telling, as a far more attractive figure than Webster, moderate where Webster was vehement, liberal-minded in contrast with Webster’s narrow religiosity. Source: Cornering the Word Market | by Christopher Benfey | The New York Review of Books

You can find the New York Times review at this link. That page has a couple of other reviews of books about the language.

If you’re interested in the language, remember Joseph Emerson Worcester and track down a copy of Martin’s book.

Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *