On this day in 1758 Noah Webster, the father of the American dictionary, was born. Like all of us here at the Endpaper Blog Webster was a book lover, and his passion for etymology led to a complete reformation of the American elementary school system. Fearing that the ruling British aristocracy was corrupting young American minds, Webster sought to put his Blue Backed Spellers (based around popular American words of the day) in every classroom so that the people-at-large could be in control of their own language. The success of this initiative inspired Webster to develop a strictly Americanised alternative to the common British-language dictionaries of the day, and his expanded and fully comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1828. This twenty-eight-year project was a massive success and subsequent volumes have moved beyond their patriotic beginnings to include International editions, cementing Webster’s legacy as the name you think of when you look for a dictionary.
noun \ˈkän-trə-ˌvər-sē, British also kən-ˈträ-vər-sē\
: argument that involves many people who strongly disagree about something : strong disagreement about something among a large group of people
The road to cultural immortality for Webster was a rocky one, however, with British traditionalists resenting the apparent abuse of their native tongue. The decades since Webster’s first dictionary publication have also seen a surprising amount of controversy surrounding what seems to be such a staid and unprovocative tome.
Webster’s Second Edition Creates A New Word
A simple editor’s note resulted in the accidental creation of a new word when the second Webster’s dictionary was published in 1934. Have you ever seen “dord” before and run to a dictionary, only to be told that it is a physics and chemistry term relating to density? Of course you haven’t, because “dord” doesn’t actually exist anywhere other than in Webster’s Second. It seems that an editorial stylist left out a key set of italics when indicateing that the abbreviation “D or d” could be used in the sciences to refer to density, so instead of incorporating this clarification into an existing definition it was instead added to the dictionary as its very own word. “Dord” remained in the dictionary for a full five years before someone came across the previously nonexistent word. And so, after five years of failing to make it into the public lexicon, “dord” was acknowledged as an embarrassing mistake and abandoned before the next printing.
Webster’s Third Edition Earns Reputation as “The Most Controversial Dictionary Ever“
While most writers regard dictionaries as an essential part of honouring word history and vocabulary development, not many would call a dictionary their ideal main character. The third edition of Webster’s dictionary, however, was so controversial that David Skinner decided it deserved its own story. The Story of Ain’t chronicles the world’s extreme reactions to the 1961 publication, which had not only expanded to include some less-than-puritanical understandings of human relations but (*gasp*) added popular terms like “ain’t.” In our world where “bootylicious” and “twerk” can be found in respectable dictionaries it may be difficult to imagine the extent to which a commonly used (though rather rough-sounding) word could cause such an upset, but the effects of including “ain’t” were widespread. Newspapers and publications wasted no time editoralising that “a dictionary’s embrace of the word ‘ain’t’ will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool of only the snob” (The Globe and Mail, via Morton’s The Story of Webster’s Third), and satirical cartoons across the world (like the one below) lampooned the inclusion. Though many academic institutions chose simply to ignore the third edition and continue using the second, “ain’t” remains in the Webster’s dictionary to this day.
Webster’s Isn’t the Only Dictionary to Court Controversy
Proving that sometimes not even board games are all “fun and games,” the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) has been a source of contention since it was first published in 1978. No edition was more controversial, though, than OSPD2 which included “jew” as a verb (and not a very nice verb). Judith Grad, the woman who first found offense with the term, joined forces with the National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League in a letter-writing campaign, eventually prompting Hasbro chairman Alan Hassenfield to remove all offensive words (including many other slurs) from the OSPD3. Problem solved.
Nope, problem not solved. No sooner did Hassenfield reach a solution with Grad and her allies than Scrabble purists were up in arms, threatening to boycott events if all English-language words (except proper nouns, of course) were not immediately put back in play. The debate raged on, with both sides accusing the other of taking a game far too seriously. Eventually, the decision was made to have both a politically correct Scrabble dictionary that includes definitions for all words, and an uncensored version that keeps some of the less culturally sensitive terms but doesn’t elaborate on their meaning. So, basically the opposite of a dictionary… Oh well, that did the trick and the game goes on!
Dictionaries may seem like a long-winded houseguest (you can appreciate it holds a lot of knowledge, but you don’t really want to spend much time with it), but as with any written work there is power hidden within. Words carry heavy personal and cultural connotations, and even with the help of a dictionary it can be difficult to determine the most appropriate usage. For more controversies related to dictionaries, check out this Huffington Post article and accompanying slideshow. Otherwise, sound off in the comments about what words you can believe are in the dictionary and what definitions you would like to see added!