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The First American Dictionary: Johnson or Webster?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at who wrote the first American dictionary.

Samuel Johnson did not write the first English dictionary, a fact that often is overlooked, despite the efforts of a number of superb Johnson scholars, such as Jack Lynch, to disabuse the world of this notion. But he did write the first American dictionary.

It was actually Samuel Johnson Jr. who in 1798 wrote the first English dictionary in America; a schoolteacher of no relation to the famous lexicographer of earlier in the 18th century, a snippet of fact that seems to delight every lexicographic historian I’ve come across.

(The first dictionary published in America was a 1788 revised edition of a work by William Perry – The Royal Standard English Dictionary, but it was not written by an American.)

This is not a truth that has been hidden from the world – many historians and writers have taken note of the American Johnson and his contribution to dictionaries on this side of the Atlantic. And yet there remains a stubborn perception that somehow Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary.

If you search on Google Books for the phrase “first American dictionary” there are slightly more than 500 hits, some of which are repetitious or not applicable. The rest seem more or less evenly divided between attributing this work to Johnson and Webster.

Frank H. Vizetelly, the former editor of the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, makes mention of Samuel Johnson as the first American dictionary maker in his 1915 book, The Development of the Dictionary of the English Language. However, shortly after this hit on Google Books is a mention that The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans says of Webster’s dictionary that “it was the first American dictionary.”

The Journal of American History, published by the National Historical Society in 1909, refers to Webster as “Writer of the first American Dictionary”, and, more currently, in History For Little Pilgrims (1998, Christian Liberty Press) we read that “In 1807, Webster began the greatest work that God had prepared for him to do – writing the first American dictionary.”

But it is not simply in outdated texts and evangelical publications that one finds this misattribution – in a 1997 book that appears to me to be fairly academically inclined and researched the following line appears: “Webster was a brilliant linguist who wrote the first American dictionary and is responsible for any differences in American spelling.”

I’m not trying to sound a clarion call about how poor Samuel Johnson Jr. has been cheated of his just rewards and fame, nor am I interested in seeing Noah Webster’s memory excoriated any more than it already has been. But I do find it fascinating to observe the different ways that an error may be grown.

Many of the authors who make the claim that Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary were likely aware of the fact that there may have been earlier ones, but for some reason choose to believe that Webster’s was the first one that was a ‘real’ American work, either because it appeared to have more patriotic orthography, or a greater deal of piety. Some others appear to have just relied on some sort of common knowledge which informed them that Webster must have been the first American lexicographer – why else would we hear so much about him?

I used to allow myself a great deal of umbrage when I found errors like this. Why I felt the need to do so is not quite clear to me – after all, I hadn’t made any great discovery myself; I’ve just managed to read one author who has a better grip on the facts than some others. Now I always find it interesting to discover commonly held beliefs that are just wrong – and it helps remind me that I have my own cherished and muddle-headed collection of things that I ‘just know’. And the more that time passes, the more I am convinced that ‘things that I just know’ is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘mistakes’.

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2 Responses to “The First American Dictionary: Johnson or Webster?”
  1. [...] Books has it, but, infuriatingly, will not let you see even a snippet view.) There’s a nice OUPblog entry about it by Ammon Shea (author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, which I wrote [...]

  2. [...] The First American Dictionary: Johnson or Webster? (oup.com) [...]

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