William D. (William Draper) Swan.

A reply to Messrs.G. & C. Merriam's attack upon the character of Dr. Worcester and his dictionaries online

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WORK." We have also established the fact that Worcester's Dictionaries
are used as the authority for orthography and pronunciation in the
best schools in Massachusetts and also in Rhode Island.

Messrs. G. & C. Merriam publish extracts from letters received from
booksellers in some of the towns in "Western Massachusetts," to show
that more of Webster's Dictionaries than Worcester's are sold by them.
We cannot better reply than by publishing an extract from an article
in the Boston Transcript of October 12, 1850 :

It may be remarked that Massachusetts has never been a great patron of
Webster's school books ; and the abstract of the school returns, at the office
of the Secretary of the Board of Education, shows that they are used only
in the poorest schools in this Commonwealth. The lowest towns in the State,
in point of appropriations for school purposes, use Webster's books ; and we
are informed, by an intelligent authority, that ia several counties the towns
which foot the lists use Webster's books ; and that the abstract referred to
does not show that a single tovra in the State, above mediocrity in point of
appropriations, uses them.

It is not necessary to draw the inference from these facts. Some of these
books are of low price, and immense efforts are made to sell them all ; and
if these efforts are successful, and this argues their superiority, then the same
kind of reasoning, applied in another direction, would place sarsaparilla at
the head of the materia medica, and exalt Dr. Townsend to that eminence
among the medical faculty which the admirers of Noah Webster seek for
him among lexicographers and book-makers.

In speaking of the action of the Legislature of the State of New
York, providing for the supply of Webster's Quarto Dictionary for the
common schools in that State, the Messrs. Merriam in one of their
pamphlets say, " Worcester was not once proposed or thought of.''

We replied that we knew not what might have been the " thoughts "
of the members of the New York Legislature upon this subject; but
we remembered to have read with great interest, at the time, the fol-
lowing able report from the Hon. James W. Beekman, Chairman of the
Committee on Literature. Mr. Beekman is an accomplished scholar;
and whether he " thought of Woi'cester " or not, in preparing his
report, we leave the public to judge.


No. 89.

In Senate, July 7, 1851.

Of Minority of Committee on Literature in reference to the purchase by
School Districts of Webster^s Dictionary.

The Chairman of the Committee on Literature, unable to agree with the


other members of that committee in recommending Webster's Dictionary as
suitable to be purchased by school districts throughout the State, reports, —

That the importance of placing a proper standard of orthography and lan-
guage in the hands of the million of children at this time attending the com-
mon schools of New York, is with difficulty appreciated. First teachings are
hard to unlearn, and the spelling and pronunciation acquired at the primary
schools are likely to remain fixed for life. The admitted objection to intro-
ducing by authority any book as a text book into a system of schools, which
owe their excellence to a wholesome rivalry among their various boards of
trustees, applies with ten-fold force to a Dictionary. A recommendation from
the Secretary of State, in his capacity of Superintendent of Common Schools,
has sufficient force ; and it is eminently proper that in his discretion he
should suggest to the districts the names of books which his leisure and
opportunities enable him to criticize. But when the Legislature, by enact-
ment, undertakes to say that the library money shall be expended for the
purchase of a certain work, and that, unless orders to the contrary are sent
to the central department, that book shall be paid for by the State, and its
cost kept back out of the library fund -due to each district, serious mischief
must result.

One successful application to the State on the part of a publisher will open
the way for another, until presently the whole fund wiU be paid out, by
authority, at Albany, without allowing the smallest choice to local trustees.
A jsremium for importunity is thus offered, which must assuredly soon fill
the few shelves of the district library with trash as vile as any which the
ignorance of rural book buyers, as alleged by the friends of Webster, could
select. In the case now presented to the Senate, the work proposed to be
sent by authority into the twelve thousand school-houses is one concerning
which men of letters are far from being agreed. The purest writers of Eng-
lish refuse to admit its claims as the standard. By immense exertions a large
array of names, not unknovra to fame, has been collected in recommendation
of the book. Those favorable notices, however, relate rather to its conve-
nience as a reference than to its value as a Dictionary. Sir Richard Phil-
lips' Million of Facts is an invaluable vade mecum, but is far from an Eng-
lish Dictionary. Webster packs together a mass of words and phrases in
almost every language, and calling the whole " An American Dictionary of
the English Language," we are asked to receive it as the best Dictionary
extant — as promoting great reforms in orthography, and as shedding new
light upon etymology.

It is assumed that Webster is an acknowledged standard of the language.
High authority may be adduced to the contrary, but it may be well to say
here that Webster has published four or five Dictionaries, all differing from
each other. These successive editions do not advance upon the principle
first assumed, namely, that of leaving out all superfluous letters, and intro-
ducing a succinctness and terseness of spelling which would commend itself
to universal esteem by its convenience and neatness. On the contrary, the
Merriam edition, which the State now proposes to buy, retrogrades from the
orthography of the edition of 1828 and of 1845. The word build, for instance,
is spelt in both the former editions hild. A pupil in the New York Institu-
tion for the Deaf and Dumb lately persisted in spelling upon his slate the
word without the u, insisting that he was right ; and, upon being permit-
ted by his teacher to go to the library, at his earnest request, returned, bear-
ing Webster open at the place, in triumph, to prove himself right. The
Merriam edition resumes the u, spelling the word build, and therefore does not
fulfil the promise on its title-"page, that it contains the entire corrections and
improvements of the second edition, in two volumes royal octavo. In that
edition the spelling is " bild." Webster is but a vacillating reformer.

" Webster," says an able critic, " began his career as a lexicographer by



spelling words as they are pronounced — aker, soe, Hand, steddy, wimmen.
lether, imagin; he ended by making a Dictionary valuable for its definitions,
scientific terms, old and obsolete words, and generally for its etymologies —
although these were sometimes fanciful, and sometimes adapted to a specific

No American writers of eminence spell by its rules. Neither Irving, nor
Bancroft, nor Bryant, nor Hawthorne, recognizes its authority. The cheap
publications of the Harpers have done more to create provincialisms — a lit-
erary evil from which America has hitherto escaped — than any one who
has not given attention to the subject would believe. Should the State of
New York add its imprimatur, we may have, ere long, expurgated editions
of the " Wars of Granada," or of" Twice-told Tales," of the " Pilgrim's
Progress," or the " Vicar of "Wakefield," done into American prose — the
spelling curtailed, in the Bloomer style, to the most utilitarian and bandy-
legged proportions, and a " crebrous claudication," to use Websterian Eng-
lish, jingling in every line.

Washington Irving, in reply to a letter of inquiry addressed to him by the
Chairman of the Committee on Literature, says :

" Sunnyside, June 25, 1851.
" Dear Sir : Several months since, I received from Messrs. G. & C. Merriam a
copy of their quarto edition of Webster's Dictionary. In acknowledging the receipt
of it, I expressly informed them that I did not make it my standard of orthography,
and gave them my reasons for not doing so, and for considering it an unsafe stand-
ard for American writers to adopt. At the same time I observed the work had so
much merit in many respects that. I made it quite a vade mecum.

" They had the disingenuousness to extract merely the part of my opinion which
I have underlined, and to insert it among their puffs and advertisements, as if I had
given a general and unqualified approbation of the work. I have hitherto suffered
this bookseller's trick to pass unnoticed ; but your letter obliges me to point it out,
and to express my decided opinion that Webster's Dictionary is not a work advisa-
ble to be introduced ' by authority ' into our schools as a standard of orthography.
" I am, sir, with great respect,

" Your obedient servant,

" To Hon. James W. Beekman,

Chairman of the Senate Committee of Literature."

Mr. Bancroft, the historian, cordially approves the opposition now made
to the introduction of any Dictionary by authority. He has nevei* been
willing to adopt the Websterian mode of spelling.

" Webster's career," says Edward S. Gould, in a letter to the chairman of
your committee, " was a mistake, because based on false assumptions. He
assumed that the language needed reformation, and that he was al^le to
reform it ; the latter blunder being far the greater of the two. He began
forty years or more ago on the extreme of his own theory, and his first false
step was to mistake the duties of a lexicographer, whose province is to record,
ViOt to legislate ; to say what the language is, and not what it should be.
Webster assumed the right to make and alter in conformity to his own views;
and assuming that superfluous letters were an orthographical evil, and that
conformity between the spelling and the pronunciation of words was an
orthogi'aphical desideratum, he almost went to the extent of our contempo-
raneous phonographers. Finding, however, on experiment, tliat this would
not do, that the storm of criticism he had provoked was more tlian he or his
book could bear, he began to modify to suit the critics. He published, in a
course of years, five different Dictionaries, all in retreat from his original
ground, and stopped modifying only when he stopped breathing ; and his
literary heir and successor and son-m-law, Goodrich, thinks it strange that
everybody is not satisfied with tliese conceSbions on the part of Webster ! —


as if a shopkeeper were to demand $5 for an article worth $1, and then,
after chaffering, and finally and gradually falling to $2.50, cite the fact of
his taking off half of this first price to prove the $2.50 must be cheap.

" The present difiiculty with Webster's Dictionary is, its total loant of a
principle. To spell words as they are pronounced, and strike out all super-
fluous letters, although radicalism and folly, is still a principle of action ;
but to abandon that, and vacillate capriciously between that and the pre-
viously recognized system, is mere quackery and irresolute nonsense, and its
tendency, when at all countenanced, is what we see — a confusion in orthog-
raphy such as was not previously known since the establishing of the lan-
guage by Johnson.

" Webster's rules are both arbitrary and capricious. He changes, for
example, theatre into theater, because, he says, words ending in re, adopted
from the French, must be transposed to er : yet in the derivative he transfers
the er, that is, the termination, back again to make ' theatrical.^ Here the
derivative does not control the primitive. Again, he changes defence into
defense, because the derivative defensive requires the s. There the derivative
does control the primitive.

"He changes distil into distill, 'because the derivative distiller, &c.,
requires the double I. ' Here again the derivative controls the primitive ;
but he does not change the forged into forgei^, although the derivative for-
getting, &c., requires the double tt; so that there, still again, the derivative
does not control -the primitive.

" He strikes the u from mould, because it is superfluous ; he strikes the u
from h(fhour, favour, &c., because it is superfluous ; but he does not strike
the from serious, courage, &c., where it is as superfluous. He strikes out
I from traveller, &e., because it is superfluous ; yet he spells excellent, vacil-
late, &c., with two Vs. He spells jsrq^i with one /, yet, with the inconsist-
ency that marks all his career, he does not strike the second / from proffer.
It is true he is right in this last forbearance, but he is, as everywhere else,

" The sum of the matter is, that Webster was a vain, weak, plodding
Yankee, ambitious to be an American Johnson, without one substantial qual-
ification for the undertaking, and the American public have ignored his pre-
tensions. One publisher of note has adopted his orthography, because he
publishes his Dictionary, and one newspaper editor of note has done the
same thing ; but beyond these two establishments, neither of which can claim
any authority as umpires in a literary question, Webster's orthography is as
unpopular as it is abominable ; and I hardly know how our Legislature could
do a greater vsrong to popular education than by inflicting Webster's radi-
calism on the rising generation."

William Oullen Bryant, whose name stands foremost among American
poets, in his journal of June 20 {New York Evening Post), says that " so
tar is Webster's Dictionary from meeting with the general acceptance of
scholars and the community, that of those who, in different parts of our
country and of the world, employ our common language, that noble vehicle
of thought which we call English, with a moderate degree of attention to its
purity, there are not ten in a hundred who ' accept ' Webster's Dictionary as
a standard of language ; nay, the majority of them have in fact no acquaint-
ance with it."

Against such authority is opposed a list of names eminent in law, in poli-
tics, and in theology, as well as in literature ; men whose good nature, as in
the case of Washington Irving, led them to return a courteous acknowledg-
ment for an elegantly-bound literary present. We have names such as
Brougham, Daniel Webster, Thomas H. Benton, Fillmore, Polk and Zach-
ary Taylor, a certificate signed by one hundred and four members of Con-
gress, " that they rejoice it bids fair to become the standard Dictionary to be

32 Worcester's dictionaries.

used by the numerous millions of people who are to inhabit the United
States." We have a complimentary letter from the well-known and esti-
mable Thomas Dick, of Broughty Ferry, near Dundee ; and, finally, paraded
in capitals, there is the gracious assertion of the London Times, that Web-
ster's is " the best and most useful Dictionary of the English language ever

To meet this testimony, it has been shown that men whose pursuits lead
them to estimate lexicons at their true value take views very unfavorable to
Webster ; and it is not unreasonable to say that, while Presidents of the
United States and members of Congress are excellent judges of politics, cler-
gymen equally good critics in matters ecclesiastical, and newspaper writers
competent admirers of convenient encyclopaedias, neither of these classes are
authority on a matter of literature.

It has been urged in the report, by the Senator from the 27th (Mr. Miller) ,
in favor of the Dictionary, that " there is no one point to which the attention
of the guardians of our schools should be directed with a more watchful or
earnest attention than to the training of all the pupils to a competent and
correct acquaintance with our mother tongue. Especial care needs to be
bestowed on this subject, in consideration of the fact that the multitude of
foreigners, vrith their children, whom we welcome to our shores, tire all to
learn to speak and write the English language ; and since many of these are
accustomed to another language at home, and often to a mixed and mongrel
dialect, we ought, as far as possible, in the district schools in which they are
educated, to give them a standard, and to accustom them to its use."

Precisely because Webster is not a standard of English diction, ought we
to withhold him from the children of the foreigner, who, recognizing on
every page words and phrases of his own, will not fail to add others, and to
hasten the corruption of our tongue ; as, for instance ^ there are French
phrases, like ci-devant, comme il faut, neuvaines; Italian ones, like cicisbeo,
zinforzando, staccato ; Spanish, such aaranchero, hidalgo, donna; Dutch, as
domine; Scotch, as ingle, cannie, and so on.

For all these reasons, the undersigned reports that, in his judgment, the
introduction of Webster's Dictionary, in the manner proposed by the bill
now before the Legislature, into the school districts of the State, would be
unwise, because Webster's Dictionary is neither an English Dictionary nor
a standard of orthography.

All which is respectfully submitted.

Chairman of the Committee on Literature.

Senate Chamber, July, 1851.

The Messrs. Merriam further state, in their advertisements, that " In
the Empire State of New Yo7-k, atid at the West, Worcester is almost
wholly unknown.'''

We doubt not that the practical teachers " in the Empire State of
New York, and at the West," will be greatly surprised at this inform-
ation. It is our good fortune to enjoy the acquaintance of many of
the most eminent teachers, not only of " the Empire State of New
York, and at the West," but of every section of the country, and we do
not remember to have conversed with a single individual upon the sub-
ject who did not express a preference for. Worcester's Dictionaries for
the school-room. Many of them speak in terms of commendation of


Webster's Quarto Dictionary as a book of reference, but all concur in
saying that " Worcester's Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory
Dictionary, as a hand-book for scholars, is the best Dictionary of the
English language extant." Let us examine the testimony, and see
how far the statement of Messrs. G. & C. Merriam, that " in the
Eynpire State of New York, and at the West, Worcester is almost
wholly unknown^'' is true.

Trom Mr. Joseph McKeen, Superintendent of Common Schools for the City

of New York.

New York, January 25, 1853.
Worcester's Universal and Critical Dictionary has been with me a standard
work in orthography and pronunciation for several years. I know of no
other English Dictionary comparable with this in these respects. All teach-
ers and public speakers will do well to have this Dictionary at hand, as a
reference book. I most cordially recommend the whole series of Dictiona-
ries by Joseph E. Worcester, as the best works of the kind with which I am
acquainted. JOSEPH McKEEN.

The Book Committee of the Ward School Teachers' Association of
the city of New York, consisting of


subjoined to a very able and highly-favorable report upon Worcester's
Dictionary the following resolution :

Resolved, That this Association recommend the adoption of Mr. J. E.
Worcester's Dictionary into all our schools.

This resolution was adopted, and Worcester's Comprehensive Pro-
nouncing and Explanatory Dictionary is now used in the Free Acad-
emy of New York city, and in the ward and public schools. It is used
in the public schools of Buffalo, Rochester, and other principal places
in the State. We subjoin the following recommendations :

From TowNSEND Harris, Esq., late President of the Board of Education,
New York City.

The design, " to give the greatest quantity of useful matter in the most
condensed form," has, in my opinion, been most happily accomplished ; and
I cheerfully recommend the work to teachers and the friends of education in
general, who are desirous of securing a cheap and comprehensive Dictionary
of the English tongue.

From Joseph McKee, English and Classical Teacher, New York.

Worcester's Comprehensive Dictionary is in every respect one of the most
correct, convenient, and useful school Dictionaries in print. It is a book
that should be found on every school-boy's desk.

34 Worcester's dictionaries,

I have examined "Worcester's Dictionary, and fully concur in the above
recommendation. LEMUEL G. OLMSTEAD, A.M.,

Principal of Classical and English School, New York.

From Robert F. "Winslotv, Commissioner of Common Schools, New York


It contains several thousand words now in common use, but not to be
found in any other English Dictionary. This alone, amongst its other
excellences, entitles it to general favor, and indeed makes it indispensable in
our schools, libraries, and literary institutions. It only requires to be
examined carefully to insure its adoption as a standard by our best English

"We fully concur in the above.

Commissioner of Common Schools, New York City ;

Principal of Ward School No. 10.
Principal of New England Institute, Bond-street, New York.

From Professor E. A. Johnson, of University of the City of New York.

The fulness and compass of the vocabulary, the minute and careful atten-
iion bestowed upon the subject of orthoepy, the propriety of the orthography,
the clearness and exactness of the definitions, together with the nice critical
notes on unauthorized words, provincial usage, &c., Avhich are found
throughout the volume, are excellences which distinguish this above any
other Dictionary within my knowledge.

From George W. Clarke, M.A., Associate Principal of Mount Washing-
ton Collegiate School, New York City.

?ilr. Worcester has, by the accuracy of his pronunciations, the brevity and
pertinence of his definitions, and, in short, by the comprehensive character
' of his Dictionary, removed from the fifty millions who use the English lan-
guage the necessity of consulting a variety of discordant, and of course
unsatisfactory, authorities.

Rochester, January 10, 1852.
We have examined Worcester's Comprehensive Dictionary, and do not
hesitate to pronounce it, in our opinion, the most comprehensive, accurate,
and useful compendium within our knowledge, and we cheerfully recommend
it as the Dictionary for our schools.

JAMES H. FRENCH, ( Principals of
C. C. MESERVE, ( Public Schools.


From Professor J. J. Owen, Free Academy, New York City.

The book is replete with evidence that the author has addressed himself
to his task with energy, industry, and eminent success. Nothing seems to
have been omitted, nothing to have been left undone. It is a thesaurus
which is not surpassed, if it is equalled, by anything of the kind in the
English language.

Professor B. E. E. Bragdon, of Falley Seminary, Fulton, N. Y.,
in a recent letter, says :

Worcester's dictionaries. ' 35

Gentlemen : I take great pleasure in saying that, after careful examin-
ation, I am convinced that "Worcester's Comprehensive Dictionary is
decidedly the best for all ordinary purposes of any vrork of the kind with
which I am acquainted. So good an English School and Family Dictionary,
I think, cannot be found. I nope it will soon become the School Dictionary
of the land. Yours, truly,


From Mr. II. Bannister, Cazenovia, N. Y.

Cazenovia, April 4, 1853.
I hold in decided preference the pronunciation and orthography of Worces-
ter's Dictionary to that of "Webster, and shall continue to recommend the
use of Worcester to the students of our institution.

Very truly yours,


The foregoing testimony shows conclusively that the Messrs. Mer-
riam are not justified in publishing the statement that " m the Empire
St.ate of Neil) York Worcester is almost ivholly unhioion" Nor is the
assertion true in reference to the knowledge of Worcester " at the
West." The following testimony of eminent educators will show that
the scholars in that section of the country are not so ignorant upon the
subject of Dictionaries as the Messrs. Merriam would have the public
suppose them to be.

H. H, Barney, Esq., formerly the distinguished principal of the
Hughes High School, Cincinnati, and now the State School Commis-

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Online LibraryWilliam D. (William Draper) SwanA reply to Messrs.G. & C. Merriam's attack upon the character of Dr. Worcester and his dictionaries → online text (page 4 of 7)