Redefining Webster’s
February 28, 2011 |  by Joshua Kendall

“Burglaries are very common here of late,” wrote 19-year-old Daniel Coit Gilman to his sister, Emily, in the spring of 1851. “Several houses and stores have been entered and robbed in the most scientific manner.” The Yale junior could not help but admire the ingenuity of the thieves, who studied the accounts of their exploits as reported by the New Haven papers. On one occasion, Gilman observed, after the robbers learned they had missed a plate that had been stashed in a cupboard, “the next night . . . very thankful no doubt for the information, [they] made a second descent upon the premises with . . .  a more thorough investigation.”

A reverence for the scientific method—wherever it might be found—would fuel the signature achievement of this budding polymath with the distinctive wit. As the first president of Johns Hopkins University, Gilman created the first American research university. And in turn, the university helped escort American scholarship to the international stage.

Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, The Milton S. Eisenhower Library

As an educator, Gilman exerted his greatest impact upon the hard sciences; Gilman’s first five hires—Hopkins’ original faculty—featured just one man of letters, a classicist, who was surrounded by experts in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. And midway through his quarter-century tenure in Baltimore, he also helped found both the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the School of Medicine. But this “captain of education,” as The New York Times described Gilman shortly after his death in 1908, still cared deeply about the humanities. “All sciences are worthy of promotion,” the Johns Hopkins president declared in his inaugural address on February 22, 1876. “Or in other words, it is useless to dispute whether literature or science should receive most attention.”

Gilman had a particular fondness for the emerging discipline of philology—the branch of literary studies that addresses the origin and use of words as well as affinities between languages. Right from the start, Johns Hopkins University harbored a Philological Association, where faculty discussed linguistic matters at monthly meetings open to the public. In 1880, the university began publishing The American Journal of Philology. “If I should name the languages taught here,” Gilman noted in a report to the trustees in 1888, “it would be obvious that language and literature hold their time-honored place.”

This word-lover, who had been steeped in Latin and Greek at Yale, did more than just pave the way for a new generation of literary scholarship while at Hopkins. Gilman’s hefty resume also includes a stint as a pioneering lexicographer. A decade before coming to Baltimore, this man of science brought the scientific method to America’s preeminent dictionary. As the co-editor of the 1864 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the first major revision of Noah Webster’s 1828 masterpiece—Gilman was partly responsible for turning what had been a literary endeavor into the evidence-based dictionary as we know it. While this feat has often been obscured by Gilman’s numerous accomplishments in the academy, it is no less impressive.

Gilman’s interest in dictionaries dated back to his arrival in New Haven in the fall of 1848. Despite its heady science courses, Yale was at that time “a veritable storm-center” of lexicography, he would later recall, as about half of the university’s 20 faculty members moonlighted as editors on Webster’s Dictionary. After taking a course on eloquence taught by Chauncey Goodrich, the classicist who had replaced Webster as the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, Gilman was smitten. By the time he reached Harvard as a graduate student, he toyed with the idea of writing a dictionary of his own.

In Cambridge, Gilman took up the study of geography. Afterward, he headed to St. Petersburg to join the staff of the new U.S. minister to Russia, Thomas Seymour. During his two years in Europe, Gilman toured scientific schools in several countries, reporting on his travels for various American periodicals. After a few months of graduate study in Berlin, Gilman accepted a position as a librarian at Yale. Not long after that return to New Haven in 1855, Goodrich, his former professor, invited him to get into the dictionary business.

At that time, Goodrich and his publisher, the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, were facing a crisis: Though universally admired and wildly successful, Webster’s was in urgent need of a makeover. The definitions for its nearly 100,000 entries were not systematically organized. They lacked literary quotations to illustrate word usage. Even more significant, the 1847 edition, which Goodrich had edited, failed to incorporate the work of German philologists who had been making systematic discoveries about the roots of words since the early 19th century. “[Webster] has literally been undermined by the new researches,” asserted Noah Porter, a consulting editor and a member of the Yale faculty, in 1857. “In regard to many words and in respect to whole classes of important roots, he is in error and of no authority to modern scholars.” In short, it was high time for English lexicography to be transformed from an art into a science.

Since its birth in the early 18th century, the English dictionary had been primarily a literary endeavor governed by the idiosyncrasies of its creators. The great solo efforts by both Webster and his British predecessor, Samuel Johnson, author of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, were as much personal statements as repositories of objective truth. For example, Johnson expressed his pique with patrons by defining “patron” as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.” Webster sneaked in his own predilections. The fervent Congregationalist defined marriage, for example, as a custom “instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes.”

While Goodrich had already removed Webster’s religious beliefs from the definitions, he hadn’t tinkered with his fanciful etymologies. As a born-again Christian, Webster had been convinced of the literal truth of the book of Genesis, which asserted that all human beings once spoke the same language. He had spent a decade relating all languages back to the ur-language, which he called Chaldee, of his biblical namesake. Unfortunately, this assumption had led to wild speculations. For example, Webster had concluded that the verb “heat” was related to the Welsh word “cas,” meaning hatred, and that the adjective “loud” was derived from the Arabic verb “walada,” which means to bring forth. Such derivations ignored the major breakthrough in linguistics that Sir William Jones had made at the end of the 18th century. This Welsh Orientalist was the first to formulate the Indo-European hypothesis, which maintained that a common ancestor language lay behind Latin, Greek, Persian, German, the Romance languages, and Celtic.

In early 1859, Goodrich was ready to get cracking on the revision. To fix the etymologies, he hired the German scholar Carl August Friedrich Mahn. But the frail Goodrich, then nearing 70, could devote no more than two or three hours a day to the project, so he also needed help with the line editing. He would end up leaning heavily on his colleagues on the Yale faculty in general, and on Gilman in particular.

“I understand that the letter A,” Goodrich wrote to publishers George and Charles Merriam, on May 26, 1859, “is to be taken up for a commencement by such of these gentlemen (especially Mr. Gilman) as are now ready to commence. This will be done upon a plan marked out by me in conversation with Mr. Gilman.”

Gilman’s wage for that work was initially a mere 60 cents an hour. But the financially strapped librarian, who had to pay for his assistant out of his own pocket and was struggling to support himself on his library salary of $2,000 a year, was happy to have the additional income. Once Gilman demonstrated his literary prowess, his compensation would rise to the top rate of $1.50 an hour, given to another one of the editors, William Whitney, Yale’s professor of Sanskrit and one of America’s most distinguished philologists.

Soon Goodrich formalized a chain of command whereby Whitney and Gilman were installed as principal co-editors, responsible for rewriting all the nontechnical definitions. Specialists would handle the scientific terms. The Yale physics professor Chester Lyman was assigned mathematics, physics, and technology, and Yale’s internationally renowned zoologist, James Dana, natural history and geology. (Due to a flare-up in his nervous condition, Dana was soon replaced by a young medical student named William Chester Minor. As readers familiar with Simon Winchester’s best-seller, The Professor and the Madman, may recall, this is the same lexicographer who, two decades later, would pass on tens of thousands of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary’s editor—from his cell in England’s Broadmoor Asylum.)

After Goodrich’s sudden death in February of 1860, Noah Porter reluctantly took over as editor in chief. Conceding that lexicography was “foreign to his special studies,” Porter was happy to hand off the bulk of the editing. “Professors William Whitney and Daniel C. Gilman,” Porter acknowledged in the preface to the book, published in September 1864, “have labored at the definitions of the principal words, recasting, rearranging, and condensing them, introducing citations, etc.”

Thanks to Porter’s conscientious co-editors, for the first time, the definitions in Webster’s were based on sound philological principles. Whitney and Gilman reorganized the entries from the previous edition to reveal the historical development of a word’s significations. And based on a thorough review of eminent English and American authors, they both added new senses and cited thousands of quotations to demonstrate particular usages. As Porter also noted, no previous dictionary contained “so many apt illustrations from so large a variety of writers.” For these citations, added Porter, the editors were indebted to a large group of devoted volunteers, “not a few of the most faithful and judicious of whom were ladies.”

While it is widely believed that the OED was the first dictionary to employ an army of volunteer readers to supply illustrative quotations, that practice actually began with Webster’s. The editors turned to everyone they knew—including friends and family—to comb through the canon of English and American literature. Gilman reached out to his sisters, Emily and Maria. “I have read over your citations from [Oliver] Goldsmith and those from [William] Hazlitt which Maria sent,” Gilman wrote to Emily on November 10, 1860. “I think it is on the whole the most valuable series we have received from volunteer assistants except perhaps Mrs. [Noah] Porter’s [Thomas] De Quincey which was extraordinarily rich.”

After thanking Emily for fishing out several idiomatic expressions during the course of her voracious reading program, the perspicacious wordsmith urged her to keep going: “You must not let the work bore you. It is a great service to us, and I am afraid a great labor to Maria and yourself.”

One of the citations from Oliver Goldsmith mentioned in Gilman’s letter featured the verb “nail.” To illustrate how the 1864 Webster’s improved upon the previous edition, consider the updated entry for that word:

1. To fasten with a nail or nails; to unite, close or stud with nails.

The rivets of your arms were nailed with gold. Dryden

2. To fasten, as with a nail, to bind or hold, as to a bargain or acceptance in an argument or assertion; to fix; to catch; to trap.

When they came to talk of places in town, you  saw at once how I nailed them. Goldsmith

3. To stop the vent of, as a cannon, with a nail; to spike. Obs.

Below these three definitions, the editors added an explanatory paragraph about a colloquial usage, “to expose the falsehood [of a lie],” which, as they noted, was derived from the practice of shopkeepers who nailed counterfeit money to countertops. While the first and third definitions rework the first three definitions listed in the earlier version, the second definition, the Goldsmith reference, and the supplemental paragraph are entirely new.

Upon its release at the end of the “public disturbances,” as the Merriam brothers referred to the Civil War, the monumental 1864 Webster’s, which contained definitions for a staggering 114,000 words, elicited raves from nearly every major American literary journal. “Viewed as a whole,” Harper’s declared, “we are confident that no other living language has a dictionary which so fully and faithfully sets forth its present condition as this last edition of Webster does that of our spoken and written English tongue.” The Atlantic Monthly noted, “Briefly, in its general accuracy, completeness, and practical utility, the work is one none who read or write can henceforward afford to dispense with” (italics in original). Even Scientific American was impressed, calling it “a vast treasury of knowledge . . . an encyclopedia in itself.”

And the makers of that other dictionary across the pond—then still in the planning stages—took careful note. On account of its innovations, Webster’s was the gold standard, which the Oxford English Dictionary, whose first fascicle appeared in 1882, aimed to replace. As he made his way through the alphabet, OED editor James Murray would keep close tabs on the “Webster-ratio”—the size difference between the two books. The New English Dictionary, as Murray’s project was originally called, was supposed to be exactly six times as large as the 1864 Webster’s. While the OED, the final volume of which wasn’t published until 1928, would eventually encompass 10 times as many words, it wouldn’t alter the template Webster’s had established. Along with his co-editor Whitney, Gilman had succeeded in creating the evidence-based dictionary.

Joshua Kendall, A&S ’91 (MA), is author of The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (Putnam, 2011).