Noah Webster 1828 vs. The World

Many years ago when my kids still submitted to public school, and still attended elementary school, my oldest broke my heart into little pieces of fierce bookish momma love when she hauled home a bunch of books the school librarian had given away. The librarian admitted some would be thrown away, which had startled the little bookish girl into saving what she could. She sniffed about the ones she had let go, saying they weren’t ‘very good anyway’. Which is quite possible. The ones she brought home caused some interesting changes in our lives.

One in particular was The New World Dictionary of American English, third college edition, apparently the 1991 publication. It is also the “Deluxe Color Edition”. Yes, with her school books, and with her other rescued books, my sweet, sweet apparently strong elementary-aged daughter brought home…a massive dictionary. It has its cool thangs going on. It’s hefty, fat, big, and a dignified dark blue. It has these incredibly cool inserts with pictures: weather patterns, anatomy, aircraft of the world, flowers…there are also some of those little sketches that add their subtle vibe to random pages. It’s kind of a cool dictionary, like I said, in some ways. But we don’t use it as a dictionary. We have flowers pressed in there, postcards, and a graduation announcement, among other things. We keep it as a contrast to The Other Dictionary, which I will get to in a moment. But as I paged through this dictionary, I became vaguely concerned at something I knew I was witnessing even if I couldn’t determine what exactly I was witnessing. I simply found the definitions unsatisfactory. I flipped here and there, reading bits and enjoying it too, but feeling that something was not quite right. I put it aside and avoided using it as a dictionary without really knowing why.

Of course, our technological access to internet dictionaries made the unwieldy book less likely to be used, as well. But the same problem can be found there. The definitions were somehow often lacking…they felt downright untrustworthy. I started to see what some of the issues were, but I hadn’t found the way to put it in words, as yet. And with a dictionary in front of me, no less!

A few years later, a home schooling friend put me onto Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. She had bought a paper facsimile, or a reprint if you will. We found it fully accessible, and free online as well, here:

A bit harder to randomly shift through delicate pages of knowledge, but the search bar is quick. You can see there what my copy looks like, too. It’s big and fat and hefty and a dignified green. Plus the golden eagle on the cover is a neat detail. That newer Webster’s has a tree on it, which is nice and symbolic, but also it was kind of simplified to the point of looking like a government agency logo.

So I got the 1828 edition for my birthday and sat down with both books in my lap…no, that would have been tricky. On a table, let’s say. And my eyes started to be opened. Let’s compare the 1991 edition with the 1828 edition. Let’s pick some words that carry a lot of weight in our lives, or they should. Words such as these shape thoughts, actions, and potentials.

The word ‘meek‘ (skipping the pronunciation, word origins, and word type):

1991 edition:

“1 patient and mild; not inclined to anger or resentment.

2. too submissive; easily imposed on; spineless; spiritless

3. gentle and kind”

And now the 1828 edition:

“1. Mild of temper; soft; gentle; not easily provoked or irritated; yielding; given to forbearance under injuries. ‘Now the man Moses was very meek, above all men.’

2. Humble, in an evangelical sense; submissive to the divine will; not proud, self sufficient or refractory; not peevish and apt to complain of divine dispensations. Christ says, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls.” ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ “

See a difference? Feel the difference?

What have we lost in our language usage from 1828 to 1991? Maybe some depth of thought, richness of feeling, and strength of character? Maybe in the push to use language as a transmission of information (after all, that’s what computers do, so it must be scientifically clean, technologically right, and the best form of modern living possible, a somehow moral value call) we have lost ready access to some valuable traits of our humanity. I think we have.

Here’s another one, the word ‘humble‘:

1991 edition:

“1. having or showing a consciousness of one’s defects or shortcomings; not proud; not self-assertive; modest.

2. low in condition, rank, or position; lowly; unpretentious /a humble home/.”

1828 edition:

” 1. To abase; to reduce to a low state. ‘This victory humbled the pride of Rome. The power of Rome was humbled, but not subdued’.

2. To crush; to break; to subdue. ‘The battle of Waterloo humbled the power of Buonaparte’.

3. To mortify.

4. To make humble or lowly in mind; to abase the pride of; to reduce arrogance and self-dependence; to give a low opinion of one’s moral worth; to make meek and submissive to the divine will; the evangelical sense. ‘Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you’. ‘Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart’.

5. To make to condescend. ‘He humbles himself to speak to them’.

6. To bring down; to lower; to reduce. ‘The highest mountains may be humbled into valleys’. 

7. To deprive of chastity. To humble one’s self, to repent; to afflict one’s self for sin; to make contrite.”

I looked up faith, hope, and charity. The same pattern showed: a rich and Christian series of definitions were stripped down to secular understandings of words. The loss of layers was obvious. There was a strong sense of morality being removed from words that we use to express moral thought. The loss of meanings caused a shift, or reflected it, and along the way a meek person became a weak person.

Given, the newer dictionary has many words that did not exist in 1828. The latest ones have even more, while other words have dropped out of usage. That alone would make a fascinating blog post as far as I’m concerned. What I want to focus on here is true loss, or the attempted loss of real meaning and usage of words we need today. The dictionaries reflect their times, this is true. They also shape them.

I believe that the purposeful shaping of our language has become more pervasive, and more blatant. Make a list of all the words you can think of that used to have multiple meanings. How many have been dropped from usage because they became burdened with sexual innuendo that made it difficult to even use them in regular conversation?

Homeschoolers may want to take note of this, if they haven’t already caught on. Enthusiasts of older reading materials may do the same. Everyone else should probably know that dictionaries are not quite the authority they used to be. This is similar to acknowledging that not all judges are dispensing true justice, and that not all schools teach to the child.

I took time out of my Sunday School class to teach the adults about this principle. We had been discussing translation, or how a specific word in some scripture had changed for us, or some such thing. Several parents took note and went home to think about this regarding their children’s education, at the very least. I am sharing the idea here. Noah Webster knew what he was doing. He should have his own holiday!

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