A HUNDRED years ago Noah Webster, the compiler of the famous dictionary, passed away. Descended on his father's side from John Webster, a pioneer governor of Connecticut, and on his mother's side from William Bradford, one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers, Noah Webster was a man of original and outstanding gifts. In the 85 years of his remark able career he was alternately farmer, lawyer, academician, politician and historian, but all through the years his mind was dominated by an insatiable curiosity as to the etymology and significance of words, and every odd moment was devoted to notes and memoranda embodying his latest discoveries. He found it a fascinating and inexhaustible study.
For, after all, the world is an enormous word-factory and its output is prodigious. Every year, almost every week, brings a new crop of words. The vast majority of these words perish almost as soon as they are born. They are coined to fit a certain occasion and, being essentially ephemeral in their purpose and character, are quickly forgotten.
Armory of the Mind
Others, however, appeal to a deeper instinct. They meet an obvious need, describe a certain quality that no dictionary word described so well, captivate the popular imagination, and, as a consequence, they live.
A good dictionary is, as Coleridge said, the armory of the human mind and contains both the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future, conquests.
In his classic, On the Study of Words, Archbishop Trench has seven masterly chapters in which he shows that words are fossil poetry and petrified history and embalmed romance, and that all the ages have left the record of their tears and laughter, virtues and vices, passion and pain, in the words they have created.
Did not Ruskin urge his readers to delve in the dictionary like prospectors searching for gold? Just as, on the diggings, the richest nugget may ravish the eyes of the miner when he is turning over the most common clay, so Ruskin held, the most astounding treasure may be found concealed in the heart of the most ordinary words.
`When I feel inclined to read poetry,' says Oliver Wendell Holmes, `I reach down my dictionary. The poetry of words is quite as beautiful as that of sentences. The author may arrange the gems effectively, but their shape and luster have been given by the attrition of age. Bring me the finest simile from the whole range of imaginative writing, and I will show you a single word which conveys a more profound, a more accurate, and a more elegant analogy.' It will be seen, then, that, properly understood and appreciated, words are jewel cases, treasure chests, strong-rooms; the repositories in which the archives of the ages arc preserved.
Like Mushrooms on a Misty Morning
Language is obviously an evolution. There was a time when even the Encyclopedia Britannica declared that our first parents received it by immediate inspiration. In view of our present knowledge of the coinage and creation of words, however, most people will feel that this can only have been true, at the most, to a very limited extent. With every momentous event in human history new words spring up like mushrooms on a misty morning.
Most of these new words, as Sir Edward Cook once pointed out, are frankly onomatopoeic. They are, that is to say, mere imitations of sounds frequently heard. The deaf and dumb man imitates, by means of gestures, the things that he sees. The man who is not so afflicted imitates, on the same principle, the things that he hears. And these oral imitations crystallize into permanent augmentations of the vocabulary. Philologists assure us that we should be astonished if we were to discover the number of our common words that were originally imitations of sounds heard.
A child's first ventures in articulation are, as Prof. Drummond has pointed out, frankly imitative. He calls the cow a moo-moo, the dog a bow-wow, the duck a quack-quack, the rooster a cock-a-doodle-doo, the clock a tick-tick, the train a puff puff; and so on. Nor does he drop the habit when he emerges from the nursery. In maturer years he still speaks of the hum of the bee, the click of the gate, the whir of machinery, the chirp of the grasshopper, the twitter of the sparrows, the hiss of the snake, the boom of the cannon, the roar of thunder, the tramp of armies, and the rest. He is building up a vocabulary on that onomatopoeic principle to which Sir Edward Cook ascribes so many of the words in the dictionary.
Oddly enough most of our words come to us, not from the halls of learning, but from playgrounds and village greens. In her Rustic Speech and Folklore, Mrs. E. M. Wright maintains that it is an egregious mistake to suppose that country people, even when quite unlettered, possess limited vocabularies. She instances one district in which the local dialect contains more than a thousand words for giving a man a thrashing, a thousand words by which one man could tell another that he was a fool, 120 names for the smallest pig of a litter, and hundreds of names for a slut. `And as for dying and getting drunk,' she adds, `there is no number to be put upon the names for them.'
Words, Words, Words!
In view of this facility, possessed by the most ordinary men, it is clear that the task of Noah Webster, a century ago, represented an undertaking of no small magnitude. `Words, words, words!' moaned Hamlet in his dialogue with Polonius, and he said it as though words were things to be regarded with contumely and disdain. But if he, and those who think as he did, were to probe the matter as deeply as Noah Webster had to do, they would discover that, to an imaginative and adventurous mind, the manufacture of words offers a wealthy field for the play of curiosity and research.
Source: F W Boreham, ‘Romance of a Dictionary,’ The Last Milestone (London: The Epworth Press, 1961), 75-77.