The Ecphorizer

Confessions of a Dictionary Addict
John Cumming

Issue #26 (October 1983)

Old dictionaries never die, fortunately

Dictionaries that are several generations old ought to be discarded, for they are merely the obsolete tools of past writing. We are practical people, utilitarian people. We recognize that the language changes and that new dictionaries must be produced to reflect changes. What use is there

...firing squad, Terror (political), vacuum tube, vitamin, and gangster.

then for an old dictionary? Consider a case in point: Webster's New International Dictionary, [quoteright]published by Merriam in 1926. This is a big, well-made book, beautifully printed. The definitions are often more thoroughly and clearly written than those in modern dictionaries. But it is old. This book even antedates the famous Second Edition of Webster's, that antediluvian tome that some linguistic curmudgeons still cling to in their futile resistance to progress.

History has contributed nothing to progress, and may be counted as of little value in a modern society like ours. Nevertheless, a view of primitive times might be had by seeing what lies embalmed in the pages of old dictionaries, and a little entertainment produced thereby. (Those old pages, incidentally, seem to resist crumbling far better than those of new books, showing how impractical and shortsighted old bookmakers were, to manufacture something that would outlast its useful lifetime).

What is important in a culture is given more expression in its language. The Eskimo has many words for snow, the Hawaiian for lava. We have many for guided and ballistic missiles. In 1926, this old dictionary from Merriam had one word for missiles: "Aerial Torpedo -any enclosed charge of explosive designed to be propelled through the air either by its own motive power, or by gravity." Presumably encompassing simple bombs as well, this word seems to comprise the entire vocabulary then in use for this important class of weapon. Who among us could yearn to live in an age so starved for means of expression? No one, surely.

The logging in of new words in this old dictionary was done in a section titled "Addenda." This section was intended to bring the book up to date from its original printing in 1923. Nowadays modern printing techniques make rapid changes in the content of books cheap and easy. Modern printing insures that no one need buy an out-of-date book.

A "new" word in the Addenda was "wristwatch," accompanied by a variant, "wristletwatch," suggesting that they weren't quite sure of this one yet. "Wop" is also listed in the Addenda, defined correctly as "an Italian; a Dago..." A modern dictionary labels this expression disparaging and offensive. Not so this edition, which merely classifies "Wop" as slang. Those were the good old days when you didn't have to look over your shoulder before telling an ethnic joke.

Among other words so common today that were just then being recognized by Merriam are: strafe, surtax, tail-light, thermos bottle, Freudian, birth control, and blurb. A trade-mark name, "groceteria," was also reported in the Addenda for 1926, though Funk and Wagnalls had printed the word in Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases in 1923 (see THE ECPHORIZER, January 1982). Perhaps the august lexicographers of Merriam were waiting to see if the word would catch on. It didn't. "Supermarket" is what we call it now. Dead words like "groceteria" are a good example of why old lexicons are so useless, of course.

Another new (for 1926) word, now falling into disuse, was "gumshoe." Defined in the Addenda as a rubber overshoe, and in slang as something done "quietly or surreptitiously," "gumshoe." is an example of a word arising from a technology now outdated. (We have much better materials than rubber now, like plastic for example). "Gumshoe" is now completely replaced in its slang meaning by such modern expressions as "black-bag job" and "electronic surveillance." Later, "gumshoe" came to refer to a private detective, a paid investigator often used to invade one's privacy before the government stepped in.

The year 1926 occurred during Prohibition, when no one could legally buy spirits. Outlawing booze was a great innovation, for it shut up preachy reformers, who now assumed that something had been done about the sinful practice of drinking (defined in the main body of the book as "the drinking of intoxicating liquors to excess; also, an entertainment with liquors; a carousal"). Naturally, outlawing drinking made the practice more interesting, like adultery. A new word in the Addenda that reflects social conditions during Prohibition was "the dansant," later to become "tea dance," a rather sober afternoon entertainment. Hardly anyone does this any more.

Other innovations in the language that represented things typical of our exciting age were recorded first in the Addenda, such as: firing squad, Terror (political), vacuum tube, vitamin, and gangster. What dull things dictionaries published before our modern time must have been.

"Garage" is included in the Addenda as a place for storing airplanes! In the main body of the dictionary, "garage" is defined as a place for housing automobiles, with a note attached cautioning that "'garage' is recent in English, and has yet acquired no settled pronunciation." Before garages, where on earth did people store their snowmobiles?

"Ecphorize" doesn't appear in this book, though it is in the second and third editions of Merriam Co's Webster's Dictionary. This omission alone must confirm beyond doubt how outdated this lexicon of 1926 really is. Fortunately, due to its thickness, it is still useful for standing on when reaching for a modern, paperback book on the highest shelves of the local supermarket, though it is a bit cumbersome to carry around. 

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illustration by Burt Schmitz

Editor John Cumming was overheard recently in a dusty used book shop muttering to himself, "Is that a strange dictionary I see before me?  Come let me clutch thee..."

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