Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Webster's Dictionary Turns 200

Via Rare Book News comes this article from The Republican (MA) on the two hundredth anniversary of Noah Webster's Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, one of America's greatest early dictionaries.

Maria Antonetti, "curator of rare books at the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton and a past president of the American Printing History Association, said the 1806 dictionary is one of the most important publications in the history of American culture. 'It's the first great American dictionary, but it's more than just that,' said Antonetti, who described the work as a kind of declaration of independence from English as spoken by the British."

The first edition of Webster's dictionary ran to 408 pages, and contained some 37,000 definitions (about 5,000 of which were new words). A small volume (6.5 x 4 inches) with tiny type, the work cost just $1.00 when it was printed (today it would cost at least ten times that much to get even a facsimile of the first edition; I couldn't find a true first for sale).

Webster's 1828 two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language was his masterpiece, doubling his early effort (it cost $20 when published); it contained more then 70,000 definitions.

For more on Webster and his dictionaries, I suggest Jill Lepore's recent A is for American.