Noah Webster dictionary

The /rel·e·van·cy/ of a Dictionary Maker

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By Ken Zurski

Herbert Coleridge

In 1858, Herbert Coleridge, a British philologist, took on the daunting task of compiling and completing a new English dictionary.

It was not an easy undertaking. Wordbooks as they were known had dated back to the early 17th century, and by the 19th century,  an American lexicographer named Noah Webster made dictionaries that were based mostly on personal assessments of the English language, which in Webster’s opinion was too closely identified with the British.

Coleridge’s dictionary would be different and involve hundred of volunteers who would find unlisted words in books and write them down on note cards along with the word’s source.

The note idea was not Coleridge’s but rather that of Richard Chenevix Trench, a British professor and lexicographer, who proposed using everyday readers to participate in the dictionary’s creation. “It would be necessary to recruit a team moreover, a huge one comprising hundreds of unpaid amateurs,” Trench proposed.

Richard Chenevix Trench

Trench’s vision took hold and Coleridge was called upon to make it happen.

Coleridge went to work designing a system of collecting the reader’s notes and organizing them. He also grossly underestimated that it would take only two years to complete the work.  In reality, near the two year mark, the dictionary was far from finished, and Coleridge, unfortunately, was dead.

Officially Coleridge died of consumption, or a bout of tuberculosis, which makes sense. However, biographers paint a more fanciful ending. While walking to a lecture hall in London’s St. James Square, Coleridge got caught in a downpour and sat soaking wet in an unheated upstairs room for several hours listening to the speaker. His chills turned to a debilitating fever and eventual death.


Despite his untimely demise,  the dictionary idea did not go with him. Several enthusiastic wordsmith’s picked up the slack. Soon they learned what a formidable task Coleridge faced. In just a few years of work, Coleridge had only gotten halfway through the first letter. Undeterred the vision carried on and in 1878, nearly a quarter century after Coleridge began. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles was released. Today, the book is cited as the basis for the inaugural Oxford English Dictionary which was released in 1895.

Coleridge is often listed as its first editor.




Noah Webster Made a New Version of the Bible. See also ‘Mistake’

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By Ken Zurski


Noah Webster hated the King James Version of the Holy Bible. He hated the name. He hated what it stood for. Not the religious aspect, that was fine. The rest, however, was too British for Webster’s taste. It was overbearing, offensive and insulting.  So the Dictionary guru set out to change it. He set out to make it more American, and the language, more like Americans speak.

It was a colossal failure.

Don’t blame poor Webster, however. His intentions were noble enough. But for generations the King James Version of the Bible, even after the end of British rule, continued to be accepted and revered in America, as it still is today. For many, words like eschew, thereon, slew or spew were just words, not language translation mistakes. Webster, however, cringed.

He changed slew – or slay – to kill. And the use of spew, well, that wasn’t descriptive enough for the fastidious Webster.  But vomit was.  And what about the grammar within its pages?  Just atrocious, Webster thought.

Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” or “Common Version” appeared in 1833. It’s not known how badly it was received in the early part of the nineteenth century, but a year later in 1834, Webster put out another book, an apology of sorts, defending the Bible’s message and Christianity as a whole. Webster had grossly underestimated the power of a book and the beauty of its language, despite the misplaced commas and invented words – like stinketh.

Webster’s version may have been grammatically correct and a more modernized version, but many considered it a big, wordy waste of time.

Webster, however, didn’t back down. Even at the age of seventy, he emphasized the importance of its completion. “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life,” he said using the word emendation without pause, which was acceptable at the time.

Today, it could use Webster’s own judicious editorial sense.

And be, ahem, emended.

Correction would work better.