The Ecphorizer

Walker's Dictionary
John Cumming

Issue #18 (February 1983)

One of Samuel Johnson's acquaintances, John Walker, was known for his professional accomplishments as an actor and as a teacher of elocution. There is, in fact, a conversation between Walker and Johnson on the subject of elocution recorded in Boswell's biography. But it was after "Dictionary" Johnson died that Walker began a third career which won him a footnote in history, for in 1792 John Walker published his own dictionary.

Major literary figures may have a natural predilection for being curmudgeons about language, as the recorded deliberations of The American Heritage Dictionary's "usage panel" (1967) suggest; but Doctor Johnson was even more so than most. His very [quoteright'/>opinionated style produced a dictionary both immensely readable and strikingly flawed. Perhaps because of its readability, Johnson's Dictionary dominated the field from its first emergence (1755) until Webster's work appeared in 1828; but it left ample room for others to argue about how the English language was to be presented. Walker was one of the better known lexicographers of this period, and his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of The English Language went through forty editions during the thirty-six years before Webster eclipsed the field.

Walker's definitions are brief, perhaps even perfunctory. He claimed that his chief interest lay in matters of pronunciation. The appearance of a lexicon by Sheridan, wherein raisin was pronounced "rayz'n" instead of "reez'n," moved Walker to append to his entry the protest that "If antiquity can give a sanction to the pronunciation of a word, this may be traced as far back as the days of Queen Elizabeth." A pun of Shakespeare's is put by Falstaff in King Henry the Fourth Part I (II.iv): "If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason on compulsion." It is cited by Walker to illustrate his pronunciation and support his claim that Sheridan's rendering was not only contrary to traditional usage but "what many would think a greater offense, destructive to the wit of Shakespeare."

Thus Walker's dictionary filled a gap left by Johnson in the area of pronunciation. Its pages are filled with discussions of the proper way to say various words. Generally, usage wins out. In a long discourse on the word "medicinal," for example, Walker takes Johnson to task for placing the accent on the second syllable instead of the third -- a rendering Johnson justified as "agreeable to the best authorities." "If by the best authorities Dr Johnson means the Poets, the question is decided; but I look upon Poets to be the worst authorities in this case, as by the very rules of their art, a license is given them to depart from the general pronunciation..." There follow several hundred words attacking Latin scholars as well, concluding with the admonition, "Let us not strive against the general current of prosaick pronunciation, which is always right, and which is equally negligent of the peculiarities of poets, and the pedantry of ancient derivation."

The battle between etymology and usage is joined repeatedly. In discussing the word "inimical" Walker writes: "This word sprung up in the House of Commons about ten years ago, and has since been so much in use as to make us wonder how we did so long without it. It had, indeed, one great recommendation, which was, that it was pronounced in direct opposition to the rules of our own language... [middle i long'/>" After a dissertation on Latin versus English vowels, Walker plumps for common usage; otherwise "the whole language would be metamorphosed, and we should neither pronounce English nor Latin, but a Babylonish   dialect between both."

On the other hand, Walker feels free to chuck usage when he disagrees with it. Under the entry for "stomachick" (a medicine for the stomach), he writes: "We not infrequently hear this word pronounced stomatick but this pronunciation, though not confined to the vulgar, is so gross an irregularity as to deserve the reprobation of every correct speaker."

Modern purists who are put off by the tendency in the business and computer communities to convert nouns into verbs ("Let's seminar the idea to see if we can interface it to our project") will find comfort in Walker. Introducing the term "panegyrize" (to praise highly) he writes: "I have not found this word in any of our dictionaries, but have met with it in so respectable a writer, that I cannot resist the temptation of inserting it here, especially as it serves to fill up a niche in language, which, I think, never should be empty: I mean, that wherever there is a noun established, there should always be a verb to correspond with it." The "respectable writer" who authoritized this term was Hannah More, and she bookized it in Strictures Modern Female Education, a bestseller of the time.

Having favored the wholesale conversion of nouns into verbs, Walker is momentarily at a loss for a word to describe the process. But he soon rises to the challenge with this curious definition: "VERBALIZE. To use many words to protact a discourse. This word is certainly useful in this sense, as we have no other active or neuter verb to express being verbose; but there is another sense in which it may be no less useful, and that is when we want to express the forming of a noun into a verb..."

Finally, we can trace in Walker the first embryonic emergence of an entire industry devoted to misinformation:

STATISTICK. This word is not found in any of our dictionaries, and seems to have been first used by Sir John Sinclair in his plan for a statement of the trade, population, and productions of every county in Scotland; with the food, diseases, and longevity of its inhabitants. A plan which reflects the greatest credit on the understanding and benevolence of that gentleman, as it is big with advantages both to the philosopher and the politician... 

Contributor Profile

John Cumming

john served as a medic in the Vietnam War then returned to Silicon Valley where he has worked as a tchnical writer and programmer at a number of Valley firms. In the 70s - 90s, John held many appointed and elected positions in local and national Mensa - notably as editor of the SFRM newletter Intelligencer and Local Secretary of SFRM, as well as serving as Regional Vice Chair for a number of years. John enjoys a good game of chess and likes nothing better than to curl up and read ancient or niche dictionaries, many of which are reviewed in these pages.

We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close
E-mail Print Blog
Return to Table of Contents for Issue #18