A different dictionary

post by KatjaGrace · 2021-01-10T06:30:53.518Z · LW · GW · 1 comments

I enjoyed James Somers account (HT Liron Shapira) of how Webster’s dictionary used to be much more beautiful than dictionaries today, for instance:

“…Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.”

Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”

Who decided that the American public couldn’t handle “a soft and fitful luster”? I can’t help but think something has been lost. “A soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface” doesn’t just sound worse, it actually describes the phenomenon with less precision. In particular it misses the shimmeriness, the micro movement and action, “the fitful luster,” of, for example, an eye full of tears — which is by the way far more intense and interesting an image than “a wet sidewalk.”

It’s as if someone decided that dictionaries these days had to sound like they were written by a Xerox machine, not a person, certainly not a person with a poet’s ear, a man capable of high and mighty English, who set out to write the secular American equivalent of the King James Bible and pulled it off.

My guess is that dictionaries became ‘official’ and so are written in an official style. And that official style is contrary to color and poetry, because these things are in some way personal, showing glints of a specific idiosyncratic soul. And part of the point of officialness is that the entity having it is expansively clean and impersonal, involving specific people only insofar as they can be homogenized and branded and made fungible. You’re not supposed to look them in the eye.

I wonder if this is related to dictionaries being commonly treated as authoritatively defining words rather than documenting a group of people’s efforts to feel around for their meanings. Somers also says:

“Notice, too, how much less certain the Webster definition seems about itself, even though it’s more complete — as if to remind you that the word came first, that the word isn’t defined by its definition here, in this humble dictionary, that definitions grasp, tentatively, at words, but that what words really are is this haze and halo of associations and evocations, a little networked cloud of uses and contexts.”

I got curious about the author of this dictionary, Noah Webster, and learned about his 1783 Blue backed speller (or formally, ‘A Grammatical Institute of the English Language’, speller section), which taught children to read and spell. It was the most popular American book at one point, according to Wikipedia, which also makes it sound like Webster might have had a substantial part in making American English different from English English:

His most important improvement, he claimed, was to rescue “our native tongue” from “the clamour[30] of pedantry” that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation. He complained that the English language had been corrupted by the British aristocracy, which set its own standard for proper spelling and pronunciation.[31] Webster rejected the notion that the study of Greek and Latin must precede the study of English grammar. The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.” This meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language…

…As time went on, Webster changed the spellings in the book to more phonetic ones. Most of them already existed as alternative spellings.[33] He chose spellings such as defense, color, and traveler, and changed the re to er in words such as center. He also changed tongue to the older spelling tung, but this did not catch on.[34]

Here is a version of Webster’s dictionary online, and Somers describes how to add it to your computer (which surprisingly worked for me in spite of his article being from 2014.)


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comment by Raghu Veer S (raghu-veer-s) · 2021-01-10T14:58:21.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One reason I can think of is the intersection of the English speaking populations of the world. India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philipines, and Bangladesh constitute over 25% of the world population. And these are also some of the largest English-speaking nations. It seems to me that the only way to cater to their needs given that only a fraction of the population can speak fluently would be through reducing the number of redirections. This is to say that it would be surprising if the incentives of one of the largest dictionary manufacturers in the world were not affected by a customer base that large.