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Look It Up: The Dramatic History Of The Dictionary

Merriam-Webster named surreal its Word of the Year 2016, the honor given to the word or term with the sharpest spike in look-ups over the previous year.
Merriam-Webster named surreal its Word of the Year 2016, the honor given to the word or term with the sharpest spike in look-ups over the previous year.

In 1789, Noah Webster wrote something radical. “There is to be no elite in America, no linguistic differentiation between classes and regions.”

No, he wasn’t one of the Founding Fathers. He’s the Webster from the Merriam-Webster dictionary company.

Here’s an excerpt from a new book by Peter Martin, “The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language,” as published in The Atlantic

For Webster, new nationhood provided unique opportunities for language reform—opportunities that would fade quickly, he warns, if not grabbed before America’s language, like Britain’s, deteriorated owing to homegrown “corruptions” such as regional dialects, affectation, nostalgia for English manners and customs, class divisions, and innumerable other evils. At least America did not have to cope with the deleterious effects of “superfluous ornament” in prose like Edward Gibbon’s and Samuel Johnson’s, the language of nobility and the British Court, and “the influence of men, learned in Greek and Latin, but ignorant of their own tongue; who have laboured to reject much good English, because they have not understood the original construction of the language.”

But it’s not as if Webster was some great lexical genius:

Bryan Garner remarks in The Wall Street Journal that Webster was “a prodigious drafter of entries, but he was sloppy, and the hirelings retained to impose consistency soon realized how rife his work was with problems.”

We speak with Martin about his new book and how Merriam-Webster became the brand name we know today.

We want to hear from you ahead of this show. English is a living language, especially in America. That evolution has always been a subject of strong debate in this country: slang, grammar, colloquialisms…everyone has an opinion about what is and is not allowed. Sometimes those opinions can be pretty damning.

Have you ever been shamed for the way you used a word in conversation? What was the word, or phrase, and why did you get a negative reaction to its usage? Or perhaps you find a particular word or phrase sets your teeth on edge: just unacceptable English.

What is it? And how have you dealt with it when you heard it?

Contact us here to share your thoughts.

Show produced by Morgan Givens.


Peter Martin, Author, “The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight Over the English Language”

Kory Stamper, Lexicographer; author, “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”; @KoryStamper

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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