By Mordechai Schiller
OK, take out your pencil. It’s quiz time.
We’ll start with a word association: I’m going to give you a word and you write down the first word you think of.
Right. Now, what was the first book that Noah Webster wrote?
Wrong. His first book was not a dictionary. (Ten points off if you wrote “The Dictionary.”) Webster published his magnum opus, the American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, at the age of 70. His first book was A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, popularly known as the “Blue-Backed Speller.” It was published in 1783 and was the first of a three-part series of “grammars” or grammar textbooks.
Final question: who wrote the first American dictionary?
Wrong. The first American dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson.
No, not that Samuel Johnson.
The New York Times reported on Oct. 15, 1898, that Samuel Johnson, Jr., published the School Dictionary; Being a Compendium of the Latest and Most Improved Dictionaries, in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1798. (Those days, it took the Times 100 years to report breaking news. Today, they make it up.)
Britain’s lexicographer laureate, Dr. Samuel Johnson, loathed Americans. “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” And, in case anyone missed the point, he said, “They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of Garner’s Modern English Usage, has made a lifework of the English Language and the people who helped shape it.
If you think the language is in bad shape today, in the 18th century, English and its shapers were already bent out of shape.
In Taming the Tongue, Garner told how after Noah Webster failed in a law practice and then in a succession of unsuccessful grammar schools, he published his Grammatical Institute in three volumes: the speller, a grammar and a reader. But he followed the bad advice of Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, giving all three books the same main title. The speller sold well, but the grammar and the reader suffered from what the marketing experts Ries and Trout call bad “positioning.” Webster didn’t create enough differentiation between each volume, so potential buyers couldn’t tell they weren’t all the same book.
A fiery Revolutionary, Webster dedicated his Dissertations on the English Language to Benjamin Franklin. In the Dissertations, he called for independence from British rule over the language. Returning Johnson’s compliment, Webster said that the “taste of” British “writers is already corrupted and her language on the decline.” He wrote that Johnson had “stupid” ideas and was a lexicographer “whose pedantry has corrupted the purity of our language.”
In a charming understatement, Garner commented that Webster “finds his voice in hyperbole.”
I used to think I have a lot of dictionaries. How many? I went around my room and counted 13 — not including Hebrew and Yiddish dictionaries, or the dozen online dictionaries I compulsively consult. Garner’s library has 4,000 dictionaries. (My library — the Brooklyn Public Library — has 5,023 English dictionaries. But they count their ebook versions. So Garner’s library has them beat hands down. It’s a word maven’s central booking.)
Besides books on lexicography, linguistics and rhetoric, Garner has amassed a collection of 1,900 grammars. (Imagine if my English teachers had that arsenal! I might have learned what a predicate nominative is.)Many of Garner’s volumes are rare collector’s items, some of them antiquarian treasures. A selection of 100 of his most interesting grammars is the subject of an exhibition opening in March at the Grolier Club in Manhattan. And Garner’s Taming the Tongue: In the Heyday of English Grammar (1711–1851) is a historical catalogue of the volumes in the exhibition. I say most interesting because their stories put the lie — or the wry — to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”
Johnson’s definition of grammar — “The science of speaking correctly; the art which teaches the relation of words to each other” — cites John Locke, whose philosophy inspired the United States Constitution:
“Men, speaking language according to the grammar rules of that language, do yet speak improperly of things.”
The full quote from Locke should serve as a warning to all of us who make our living from wordwork. Locke warned against focusing on words and definitions to the exclusion of nature and the “things themselves; and, by their arguing one with another, make but small progress in the discoveries of useful truths.”
If you imagine grammarians as self-effacing scholars squinting through pince-nez in a hushed library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. As Garner told it, the scene was more like a barroom brawl. Some of the history reads like a shoot-’em-up saga of wordslinging and mudslinging, feuds and range wars.
When I saw the title Taming the Tongue, my first thought was the prohibition of lashon hara — slander and gossip. And maybe in an ironic way, that’s what it’s about. Garner has documented “how fury, plagiarism, hypocrisy, and madness once plagued grammarians.”
You’d think they were running for election.
Please send smiles, sticks and stones to firstname.lastname@example.org.