Defining Moments

Friday, September 18, 2009


September 18th is the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson, whose Dictionary of the English Language was one of the first and most influential. His format – with head words, etymologies and sample sentences – remains unchallenged. But his standard – what dictionaries stand for – has been undergoing a slow but inexorable evolution, as OTM’s Mike Vuolo reports.

Comments [11]

Liz from New Hampshire

This piece was laugh-out-loud funny... "lexicographical anti-christ" made me pull over to the side of the road in order to avoid an accident.

Nov. 03 2009 10:17 AM
James Peters

About 50 years ago, we too bought the Complete and Unabridged Little & Ives Webster Dictionary and Home Reference Library in sections at a supermarket. However, it is not related (nor is it comparable) to the Webster dictionaries (published by Merriam) described in the interview. Since the Webster name is public domain, any publisher may call its dictionaries "Webster's". Absurdly, even Random House and Encarta have stuck "Webster's" onto their dictionary names. It would seem those publishers don't have much confidence in the reputations of their own names alone.

Sep. 27 2009 08:20 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven

As my mother purchased it in sections, I studied each on as I assembled Complete and Unabridged The Little & Ives Webster Dictionary and Home reference Library
International Edition edited by Henry Cecil Wyld
B. Litt., Oxford; Lecturer, Manchester and London Universities; Author: Slang Today and Yesterday, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Usage and Abusage, World of Words, Dictionary of Cliches.

It is cumbersome, so I have often used one of two copies of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, one given me by Rita Reutter, my partner in the Elder newspaper, and the other by, again, my mother but I noticed that a friend who used his time in prison to become the editor of the prison newspaper owned his family's nearly pristine, though not unused, copy of the former which he honored with its own lectern, his youthful memories of it so contributed to his rehabilitation.

Webster's Illustrated Dictionary, which Mom bought for a buck to resolve Scrabble disputes, had print she could read but was "crap" in her opinion. (As strong a curse as she ever used.)

Nowadays, I often go to

Sep. 25 2009 03:04 AM
James Peters

Although I basically liked the story, I feel that too much emphasis was given to criticisms levied against Webster's Third New International. More important is its astonishing lexicographical scholarship, only challenged by Oxford. Webster's Second was larger only because it included vast numbers of proper names, undefined combination words and phrases, obsolete words and spellings, and other items left out of the Third. The later volume added much modern vocabulary, improved etymologies, and more thorough and subtle definitions. I love both volumes for what they offer.

Also, Webster's Second is not "the largest single volume dictionary of English." I have a one volume edition of the Century Dictionary, about 8500 pages comprising the entire vocabulary volumes. It is enormous, much larger than Webster's Second, although not as widely distributed.

Sep. 23 2009 12:41 AM

"Something that is rendered shocking or fascinating by its low quality or poor condition. The rotten old abandoned amusement park was a craptacular place to spend the Afghanistan."

I think this might be an error in your transcript. "Afternoon" is probably what he really said.

Sep. 21 2009 06:11 PM
ARW0001 from earth

I could be wrong but i think "Craptaculer " was first uttered by the illustrious bart simpson. It had to be in the first few seasons, homer calls the fam out to see the holiday lights display hes just completed and when he plugs it in it fails to work and bart says something like - craptacluar dad.

Sep. 21 2009 01:28 PM
Kirstin from Beverly, MA

I keep hearing "ginormous". When did this one become NPR-worthy?

Sep. 20 2009 03:01 PM
patchy from Charlotte

My favorite from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition:

F**k Up: One who f**ks up.

Didn't John Wayne once refer to something as regodd***diculous?

Sep. 20 2009 12:11 PM
milly from milltown

Portmanteau is alive and well—and it's good fun, kids. I prefer 'craptastic' to 'craptacular' as well

Sep. 20 2009 08:04 AM
Tim Hayman from New Hampshire

This piece was far from craptastic.

Sep. 19 2009 04:14 PM
keith brewer from Seattle

Sorry I'm late on this. Back in perhaps the end of July you had a novice NYC reporter on who was falling in to the tragic rut of having to 'balance' his report with a matching bad thing on the left to each one he might find on the left. What I am refering to was, though I don't recall the exact topic, he was criticising someone on the right for 'misinformation,' ...but as all good little reporters seem the have to do, ...he then jumped for 'balance' to accuse Michael Moore of lying on the left. This way, I'm sure he felt secure from anyone on the right calling him that evil word, 'biased'. But, it's Not biased to call a lie from the right a lie. I wish you would have called him out on this!!!! This tendency in the media for 'fake' 'balance' is very cowardly and sad. ..This is only a small example I point out of a huge problem... The right has ten liars to every one on the left because they feel their ends justify their means. It Is true. Please do a story on this.
Our society cannot survive the ugly trail of lies and misinformation from the Beck's and Limbaugh's and Hannity's and others corporate hacks who prey on the utter ignorance and fear of the feeble minded 'tea-baggers'. This is a Very dangerous time for truth and for our society. WE Need some more Truth to counter this sad mess.

Sep. 18 2009 05:27 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.