Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

On this date in 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fettish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly fast. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) or Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

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