The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language by Peter Martin - review by Max Norman

Max Norman

You Say Women, I Say Wimmen

The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language


Princeton University Press 358pp £24 order from our bookshop

In one of the great coincidences of history, Samuel Johnson Jr – no relation to his English namesake – compiled America’s first dictionary. The first American dictionary, however, was produced by Noah Webster, born one year after Johnson and a few miles south of him on a farm near Hartford, Connecticut. Hot-blooded and indefatigable, Webster was the self-proclaimed ‘prophet of language to the American people’ and a sworn enemy of Dr Johnson. In his 409-page Dissertations on the English Language (1789), a linguistic Declaration of Independence, Webster called the English lexicographer ‘the insidious Delilah by which the Samsons of our country are shorn of their locks’. If it were to be a proper nation, America would need to shrug off its cultural inferiority complex, acutely felt by the Founding Fathers and gleefully reinforced at every opportunity by the carping British commentariat. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it some fifty years later, there was a need to ‘extract the tape-worm of Europe from America’s body’.

Webster rose to the occasion with a reformer’s zeal: ‘Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government,’ he wrote in his Dissertations. The problem was that Webster, though indoctrinated at Yale in the ideology of American greatness and

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