Why I switched to a dictionary that is over 100 years old

May 30, 2014

A definition from the 1913 Webster's

A definition from the 1913 Webster’s

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing led me to a great blog post by James Somers about the mellifluous language found in very old editions of the famous Webster’s dictionary. He cites how the default dictionaries on the Kindle and the most widely used online dictionaries are pedestrian and uninspired, even insipid. I consider my own prose to be straightforward and functional, albeit reflecting a vocabulary expanded by my avid reading. But I can certainly recognize the wonderful rhythm and style of Edward Gibbon’s prose in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and see a similar attention to prose stylings in the definitions (the definitions, for goodness sake) Somers cites in a very old edition of Webster’s.

I picked out the most recent word I looked up as a comparison; I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan and “pulchritudinous” gave me pause. I knew it was something to do with beauty, but not clear on what sort of beauty it might convey.  I started with what has been my default dictionary on my Kindle Paperwhite, the Oxford Dictionary of English:

pulchritude n. [mass noun] LITERARY beauty.
<DERIVATIVES> pulchritudinous adj.
<ORIGIN> late Middle English: from Laton pulchritudo, from pulcher, pulchr- ‘beautiful’.

Well, that confirmed it was about beauty, but told me nothing more. Pitiful. Hmm…the Kindle lets me easily switch to another dictionary I installed, The New Oxford American Dictionary:

pul·chri·tude n. POETIC/LITERARY beauty.
<DERIVATIVES> pulchritudinous adj.
<ORIGIN> late Middle English: from Laton pulchritudo, from pulcher, pulchr- ‘beautiful’.

There all that I gain is syllables. So I followed Somers instructions to add the Webster’s Revised Unabridged of 1913 to my Kindle:

Pul’chri•tuden. [L. pulchritudo, fr. pulcher beautiful.]
1. That quality of appearance which pleases the eye; beauty; comeliness; grace; loveliness. “Piercing our heartes with thy pulchritude.” Court of Love.
2. Attractive moral excellence; moral beauty. “By the pulchritude of their souls make up what is wanting in the beauty of their bodies.” Ray.

Oh my, that is much better. I suppose a madman would try to use the crème de la crème of English words and meanings over time, the Oxford English Dictionary (not to be confused with the utilitarian Oxford Dictionary of English; the fascinating origin of the true OED was wonderfully told by the incomparable Simon Winchester in The Professor and the Madman).  But that would be absurdly expensive and bulky in print or even on a screen.

You can try out the 1913 edition of Webster’s online. Somers says, “Look up examplemagicsport. Look up arduoushugechauvinisticvenalpell-mellraimentsuesmarting,stereotype. Look up the word word, and look, and up. Look up every word you used today.” A little experimentation will show you what he admires; consider the elaborate guidance which comes with arduous:

Ar”du*ous (?; 135)a. [L. arduus steep, high; akin to Ir. ard high, height.]

1. Steep and lofty, in a literal sense; hard to climb.

Those arduous pats they trod. Pope.2. Attended with great labor, like the ascending of acclivities; difficult; laborious; as, an arduous employment, task, or enterprise. Syn. — Difficult; trying; laborious; painful; exhausting. — ArduousHardDifficultHard is simpler, blunter, and more general in sense than difficult; as, a hard duty to perform, hard work, a hard task, one which requires much bodily effort and perseverance to do. Difficult commonly implies more skill and sagacity than hard, as when there is disproportion between the means and the end. A work may be hard but not difficult. We call a thing arduous when it requires strenuous and persevering exertion, like that of one who is climbing a precipice; as, an arduous task, an arduous duty. It is often difficult to control our feelings; it is still harder to subdue our will; but it is an arduous undertaking to control the unruly and contending will of others.”

So I have made the 1913 Webster’s my new default dictionary on my Kindle, which lets me switch to one of the Oxfords or use Wikipedia if a definition is not present in the 101-year-old tome. Don’t settle for something newer, however. Note how disappointed I was in the modern but minimalist Oxford Dictionary of English; using a more modern Webster’s probably would not help much. “Webster’s” on a dictionary title means very little since Noah Webster and his copyrights both expired so very long ago. My anachronistic print dictionary beside my computer is Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition of 1986 by Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster, and has little relationship to the 19th century Webster dictionaries. It is just as minimalist as the Oxford Dictionary of English. Buying a Webster’s from Merriam-Webster might help, but their online definition of pulchritude was just as pathetic:

pul·chri·tude noun \ˈpəl-krə-ˌtüd, –ˌtyüd\
:  physical comeliness
— pul·chri·tu·di·nous \ˌpəl-krə-ˈtüd-nəs, –ˈtyüd-; –ˈtü-dən-əs, –ˈtyü-\ adjective

Oh no. Webster’s 1913, please!


About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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