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A Bigly Truth: The Sordid History of Politics and the American Dictionary

Lexicographers are trained to thrive in the face of endless, grinding monotony, but even we are sick of this presidential campaign. Don’t get us wrong–millions of people have rushed to the dictionary to figure out what exactly each of the candidates has meant when they used “locker-room” or “hombres” or who am I kidding with the “candidates,” it’s practically all Trump, everyone is looking up every  morpheme that burbles from his disproportionately small mouth.

As most people know, we take delight in reporting what sorts of words people are looking up: when life gives you “bigly,” make bigly-ade. But this election season, whenever we have reported on any lookup driven by an election event—and let’s be frank, just about everything this year has been an “election event”— we are dragged into the twittering political fray. “Clearly took out words that would make Trump look bad,” one Twitter user complained; another responded to a tweet about the infamous “mazel tov cocktail” incident with a link to Benghazi conspiracy theories. It’s not just Twitter: months ago, I was in an argument with someone I know and respect very much, and when I appealed to a professionally edited source—namely, the one I edit—to back up my assertion, my friend deflated in disgust. “Merriam-Webster is a liberal dictionary,” they sneered, and I fizzed and sputtered my way out of the room, picking up my jaw as I went.

The dictionary, as modern lexicographers are fond of hollering into the void, is not a political tool. It is a pedagogical tool; it is a linguistic record; it is steadfastly, tirelessly, blandly objective. But we can’t blame people for thinking otherwise, because that’s not always been the case.

When Noah Webster set out to write his 1828 magnum opus, it wasn’t because there wasn’t an adequate dictionary on the market. There were several, actually: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Perry’s Royal  Standard English Dictionary. There were even dictionaries and glossaries compiled by Americans— the 1798 A School Dictionary by the aptly named Samuel Johnson Jr., who was no relation to the O.G. Drudge in London but was the first American lexicographer, and the 1816 A Vocabulary: Or, Collection of Words and Phrases, which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America, by John Pickering, whose work focused entirely on Americanisms. No: for Webster, an American dictionary was integral to American identity and American politics. “Customs, habits, and language, as well as government, should be national,” he wrote. “America should have her own distinct from all the world. Such is the policy of other nations, and such must be our policy before the States can be either independent or respectable.”

Noah definitely indulged in a little patriotic propaganda. In his 1806 Compendious Dictionary, the trial run for the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, he defines “Americanism” as “love of America and preference of her interest,” which draws some local ire:

Americanism_is described thus: “Americanism, n. love of American and preference of her interest,” but it usually means an expression peculiar to our side of the Atlantick, not admitted in elegant English; and the alteration by Mr. Webster is preposterous. He says in his letter that he has been censured for introducing Americanism into his work, and proceeds to justify his conduct. But he surely means to speak as a philologist, and not a politician. (The Star (North Carolina), July 5, 1810)

A quick perusal of the evidence shows that though there is some use of “Americanism” to refer to something akin to patriotism, the word is most often used to refer to a word or saying “peculiar to our side of the Atlantick.” Was he reproved? Perhaps only moderately: the 1828 definition for “Americanism” is “the love which American citizens have to their own country, or the preference of its interests. Analogically, an American idiom.” For Webster, the patriotic (and limited) meaning of “Americanism” was far more important than the more common lexical use. It was a part of American identity, and what better way to promote it than through the American Dictionary of the English Language?

The goal of helping shape American culture led Noah to do some things that modern lexicographers would cringe at: he got his friends and man-crushes in politics to promote his dictionary as the American dictionary—national identity! USA! USA! This was not greeted with unanimous support:

We find in the Washington Telegraph, a certificate of more than one hundred members of Congress to the merits of Webster’s Dictionary, recommending it as a work proper to be consulted as a standard of the language. … Without meaning any disrespect to the gentlemen who have subscribed this certificate, we must say that we do not think it will do the Dictionary any good. We suffer members of Congress to make our laws, but not to make our language. (The Evening Post (New York), April 12, 1831)

Gee, it’s almost like the American people had just declared their independence from a distant and elitist government and didn’t want to be told what to think!

But this state of affairs set the tone for the rest of American lexicographical history. In the attempt to sell dictionaries, Webster and then the Merriam brothers appealed to the ruling elite–including as many politicians as they could muster–to endorse their book, and to some, the dictionary became inextricably linked to politics. Even as the defining itself moved to a staff model, which helps insure against one person’s personal biases and quirks overruling actual usage, and the prefaces of newer Webster’s Dictionaries were filled with lists of sources from which evidence for definitions was pulled, the charges of politicking flew. “RADICALS TAMPERING WITH THE SCHOOL BOOKS,” one 1866 headline trumps, continuing, “Partisan Definitions in the New Editions of Webster’s Dictionary.” An 1870 advertorial in a different paper for competitor Joseph Worcester’s dictionaries (the last of which had come out ten years prior) notes that Worcester is preferred over Webster in part because

[Webster’s] definitions of political words and terms are frequently sectional and unjust, and convey to the reader a wholly wrong idea. We pointed out the other day the changes made in Webster in the definition of such words as constitution, compact, nation, congress, and republic. All these words have been defined by the present editor of Webster’s Dictionary so as to furnish arguments against the democratic view of our institutions, and against the views of Dr. Noah Webster himself, whose definitions were accepted as correct. [Ed. note: hahaha, sure, okay.]

The present editor was not, as this note would suggest, a rabid anarchist. He was, it should be noted, just trying to do his goddamned job.

Even modern attempts to sway people away from this notion that the dictionary is political have failed. In one of the most widely-read and scathing critiques of the 1961 Webster’s Third, Jacques Barzun calls the book “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” This in spite of the fact that one of the deepest yet subtlest changes made to the Third by Gove, its editor in chief, was the removal of editorialization and bias in definitions, labels, verbal illustrations, and pretty much everything else he could get his hands on.

In one of his dissertations on language, Noah Webster wrote, “Small causes, such as a nick-name, or a vulgar tone in speaking, have actually created a dissocial spirit among the inhabitants of the different states, which is often discoverable in private business and public deliberations. Our political harmony is therefore concerned in a uniformity of language.” Anyone who has lived through this election feels that in their deep waters: words like “deplorable” and “divisive” have become overnight dog whistles; you know instantly where a person falls on the political spectrum depending on whether they call it the “Democratic party” or the “Democrat party”; who would have thought that “pussy” would have been one of the biggest news stories of a presidential election?; “bigly” has, out of nowhere, become the shibboleth by which we cull out supporters of the opposition (on both sides, on either side, on every side). The election is being played out in all sorts of odd places, letter by letter, morpheme by morpheme.

But there is a weird comfort in knowing that language has always been politicized, and yet here we are: e pluribus unum-ing our way into 2017. I walked to my polling place this morning past a house flying several Trump banners, just around the corner from  another house with a “Hillary: Because Sane People Live Here” yard sign. I walked past about a dozen people who all had “I VOTED TODAY” stickers on; I knew some of them might yell nasty things at me for supporting my candidate (whichever one I supported). But every person who passed me looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said “hello” or “good morning,” and y’all, I live in New Jersey where looking a person in the eye and saying “hello” to them might get you cold-cocked right in the kisser. There will be a shit-ton of whining and anger and pain and whatever tomorrow when we wake up to a new president (whichever one). But for one small moment today, we were all on the same page: we were all voters.

I said in a recent Washington Post article that one of the great things about reporting lookups was that you find not only that words matter, but that the people behind those words matter more. It’s the one lesson from this election that might actually be worth putting on a sticker or baseball hat.

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