One from the heart.




A Word For Webster’s


Yesterday saw the finals of the 75th Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. The spelling of “prospicience” (something I see Word Spellchecker is unable to do) allowed 13 year old Pratyush Buddiga to claim victory. I wonder if the use of it allowed him to predict victory. Frankly, they might have saved several days of competition if they had simply required all the contestants to spell “Pratyush Buddiga.” The same result would have been achieved much sooner. But that would have deprived the rest of us of the words.


You all know what I am talking about, I’m sure. Every year the papers cover the story, and every year they provide examples of the words these kids must spell. Every year the words get better and better. Some of the words cited don’t seem so hard to me (nor do I think any of you would find them hard). Few of us have previously seen “boswellize,” yet it strikes me as neither hard to define, nor hard to spell. “Nietzschean” I confess is tougher to string together, but once again the meaning is obvious. Ah, but now we come to the part of the game open to us, the armchair warriors: the meaning of the words. I would like to claim that I know them all, but it just isn’t so. I should know “hermeneutics” (the study of meanings, especially as that relates to Biblical theology) having seen it often enough, but I had to check. “Thalassocrat” (a ruler of a sea domain) is another that has sailed past me in the past, but I was at sea when it swam into view yesterday. I was familiar with YHWH, the Hebrew representation of the name of God, but I didn’t know it was called a (the?) tetragrammaton. I have been a “nullifidian” (religious unbeliever or skeptic) for years, and never knew it. I am downright eager to employ “antonomasia” (either the use of a designator to address someone, e.g. “your lordship,” or the use of a person’s name to represent an entire group sharing the person’s characteristics – “Don Juans”) now that I know what it means. By now, of course, some of you may think this paragraph a burst of “psittacism” (repetitive, meaningless speech).


The fashionable way of looking these words up is to do a web search. I resorted to that myself when “escabeche” (a marinade used in Chilean cooking) distinguished itself by being the only prisoner failing to appear before my court of first resort or the courts of appeal. Let me introduce the honorable jurists presiding. They are: the Random House 2nd Unabridged Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Webster’s New International Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition. When I want a word it is to them I turn.


The court of first resort is the Random House. It is a marvelous book standing a foot high (they all do) and carrying 315,000 entries on its 2500 pages. I use it first because it is the most recent (1987), and more important, because it is the lightest. At eleven pounds it is the baby of the group. All of the quoted words in the stretch from “hermeneutics” to “psittacism” can be found within its covers. It also has some entertaining features, such as a family tree of the Indo-European languages. You can check up on your cousins the Gujaratis, mourn the passing of Great-Uncle Manx, and wonder which rude branch of the family the Rhaeto-Romanics belong to. But even this giant doesn’t house every random word.


The OED needs little help from me to establish its credentials. Normally published in 17 volumes, I own the edition with the microscopic print. Its entirety is encased in two volumes which, with case and supplied magnifying glass weighs just over twenty pounds. When I asked it for help with “Ogygian” (of great age) it not only defined it, but gave me a lecture on the semi-mythical king of Boetia, Ogyges, and provided two literary citations, one from Hogg’s Life Of Shelley: “Sir Bysshe was Ogygian, gouty and bedridden.” This is the great and famous feature of the OED, this attention to source. (A good book on the creation of the OED is Simon Winchester’s The Genius and the Madman.) The OED has more to say about its little pets, but it does not necessarily have the best stocked menagerie. Since its fellow jurists also lacked a taste for “escabeche” I cannot fault it for failing to include it. And I have no way of knowing whether it was conversant with “stultiloquence” (babbling or prattling), allowed “caulicolous” (a fungi growing on plants) to grow near the cauliflower, or could smoothly handle “soavemente” (handle smoothly). I do know that Webster’s did. And I also know that only Webster’s provided a clue to the meaning of “geusioleptic” (which I think means the inability to taste – Webster’s defines “geusia” as a part of medical terms relating to taste).


The OED may weigh over twenty pounds, but once you pluck a volume from the case it’s relatively “imponderous” (lightweight – this one isn’t from the Bee, I threw it in gratis). Webster’s is sixteen and one-half pounds between two covers. You cannot simply lift it from the shelf and then open it in place. You have to haul it over to a large flat surface, floorboards groaning beneath you, then flop it down while its pages sigh with relief as they cascade open. It is like wrestling a bear; it doesn’t matter how tame it is, it is still a bear. Webster’s 2nd edition was issued in 1934; 106 years after the Ogygian Noah published the first one. Perhaps you’ve seen it? It is already over six inches thick reposing on a shelf. It has a sturdy brown cover, and looks like…Well to me, it looks like a dictionary. If one were to look in the dictionary under “dictionary,” this is the very picture one ought to see!


Speaking of pictures, Webster’s is full of them. There are marvelous little line drawings, filled with the finest detail, throughout the work. There are also color plates popping up like merry surprises when you least expect them, depicting medals of valor, or State flags, or Orchids. The very first picture is the founder, Noah Webster (1758-1843) himself, looking like he just swallowed all the words in his first edition, and only his taciturn Yankee background enables him to not immediately spit them back out. There are also four pages of photographs of the editorial board, a group of educational heavyweights who look like they have devoted their lives to educating your young mind, though not a few look like they’d be pleased enough to take a ruler to your knuckles if you misuse any of the words they are furnishing you.


My version of Webster’s 2nd was printed in 1949, and claims to have over 600,000 entries on 3350 pages – more than 120,000 entries ahead of any other dictionary. Has it been surpassed since then? I am not sure. The online version of Webster’s 3rd boasts only 470,000 entries. The online OED claims “over 500,000 words.” If Webster’s 2nd no longer wraps its considerable girth in the championship belt, it is still a tough and wise competitor at 53 (again, my printing), its rough brown hide ready for another half-century of manhandling. In the whisper of its pages I can still hear (and nowhere else – certainly not in the silent blink of pixels) the voices of the olden people who coined and used these words.