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Bat the object of a dictionary seems to be much mistaken by a great portion of readers. A lexicographer has to compile his work from the language as he finds it: he is not allowed to invent new terms, nor to put a new meaning on old ones. Language, as it is spoken and written, forms the materials out of which he is to construct his work; and as these lie scattered over a large field, he will find no little perplexity in collecting them together, arranging them in due order, giving to each word its proper sound and signification, so as to make the way for the learner easy and safe. Hence, says Doctor Johnson, When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules ; whereever I turned my view there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principles of selection : adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.' If Dr. Johnson found the English language in such a disordered state in his day, what must it have been before the revival of letters, in the sixteenth century !
Since, however, the days of Johnson, our language has undergone many changes, and has been enriched with an accumulation of a multitude of words. Even Todd, when he published his edition of Johnson's dictionary, added several thousand words. And the progress of the arts, the extension of commerce, and the cultivation of the sciences, have all contributed to extend the boundaries of our language, by the introduction of new terms. However perfect, therefore, the several dictionaries may have been at the time they were compiled, still at this time a new one was much wanted, which, while it combined the excellencies of those already in use, might correct their faults, supply their defects, and thus more perfectly develop the beauties and illustrate the meaning and energies of the language. This has been attempted by Dr. Noah WEBSTER. To him, indeed, more than to any other, Americans had a right to look for an American dictionary; and he has not disappointed their expectations,
We say Americans had a right to look to Dr. Webster for a dictionary of their language. He had long labored in the field of philology. He had, indeed, devoted nearly his whole life in this department of science. He first taught our children to lisp their native tongue, by his American Spelling Book; and although when it made its appearance it was opposed with much violence, its merits could not have been attested in stronger language, than that which has been expressed by the numerous imitations of his plan by those who have succeeded him in similar works. Perhaps no elementary work of the
kind has had a more extensive circulation, or has contributed more to fix a uniformity of pronunciation and orthography, than Webster's Spelling Book. His Grammar came next to the help of his countrymen: and though it was not so favorably received as his Spelling Book, it cannot be read without profit. His first efforts as a lexicographer were not crowned with that success which they deserved. But his quarto dictionary has been ushered into the world under peculiarly favorable circumstances; and it has certainly supplied a desideratum in the philological world, much and long wanted.
But the following account of the manner in which the present dictionary has been brought before the public, will best explain to the reader the importance and utility of the work :
• In the year 1783, just at the close of the revolution, I published an elementary book for facilitating the acquisition of our vernacular tongue, and for correcting a vicious pronunciation, which prevailed extensively among the common people of this country. Soon after the publication of that work, I believe in the following year, that learned and respectable scholar, the Rev. Dr. Goodrich of Durham, one of the trustees of Yale College, suggested to me the propriety and expediency of my compiling a dictionary, which should complete a system for the instruction of the citizens of this country in the language. At that time I could not indulge the thought, much less the hope, of undertaking such a work; as I was neither qualified by research, nor had I the means of support, during the execution of the work, had I been disposed to undertake it. For many years, therefore, though I considered such a work as very desirable, yet it appeared to me impracticable; as I was under the necessity of devoting my time to other occupations for obtaining subsistence.
About twenty-seven years ago I began to think of attempting the compilation of a dictionary. I was induced to this undertaking, not more by the suggestion of friends, than by my own experience of the want of such a work, while reading modern books of science. In this pursuit I found almost insuperable difficulties, from the want of a dictionary for explaining many new words, which recent discoveries in the physical sciences had introduced into use. To remedy this defect in part, I published my Compendious Dictionary in 1806 ; and soon after made preparations for undertaking a larger work.
My original design did not extend to an investigation of the origin and progress of our language; much less of other languages. I limited views to the correcting of certain errors in the best English dictionaries, and to the supplying of words in which they are deficient. But after writing through two letters of the alphabet, I determined to change my plan. I found myself embarassed, at every step, for want of a knowledge of the origin of words, which Johnson, Bailey, Junius, Skinner, and some other authors, do not afford the means of obtaining. Then laying aside my manuscripts, and all books treating of language, except lexicons and dictionaries, I endeavored, by a diligent comparison of words, having the same, or cognate radical letters, in about twenty languages, to obtain a more correct knowledge
of the primary sense of original words, of the affinities between the English and many other languages, and thus to enable myself to trace words to their source.
I had not pursued this course more than three or four years, before I discovered that I had to unlearn a great deal that I had spent years in learning, and that it was necessary for me to go back to the first rudiments of a branch of erudition, which I had before cultivated, as I had supposed, with success.
I spent ten years in this comparison of radical words, and in forming a synopsis of the principal words in twenty languages, arranged in classes, under their primary elements or letters. The result has been to open what are to me new views of language, and to unfold what appear to be the genuine principles on which these languages are constructed.
After completing this synopsis I proceeded to correct what I had written of the dictionary, and to complete the remaining part of the work. But before I had finished it, I determined on a voyage to Europe, with a view of obtaining some books, and some assistance which I wanted ; of learning the real state of the pronunciation of our language in England, as well as the general state of philology in that country; and of attempting to bring about some agreement or coincidence of opinions in regard to unsettled points in pronunciation and grammatical construction. In some of these objects I failed; in others, my designs were answered.
It is not only important, but, in a degree, necessary, that the people of this country should have an American dictionary of the English language ; for, although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country, cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language. Now an identity of ideas depends materially upon a sameness of things or objects with which the people of the two countries are conversant. But in no two portions of the earth, remote from each other, can such identity be found. Even physical objects must be different. But the principal differences between the people of this country and of all others, arise from different forms of government, different laws, institutions and customs. Thus the practice of hawking and hunting, the institution of heraldry, and the feudal system of Èngland, originated terms which formed, and some of which now form, a necessary part of the language of that country; but, in the United States, many of these terms are no part of our present language, and they cannot be, for the things which they express do not exist in this country. They can be known to us only as obsolete or as foreign words. On the other hand, the insti. tutions of this country, which are new and peculiar, give rise to new terms, or to new applications of old terms, unknown to the people of England, which cannot be explained by them, and which will not be inserted in their dictionaries, unless copied from ours. Thus, the terms, land-office ; land-warrant ; location of land ; consociation of Churches ; regent of a university ; intendant of a city; plantation, selectmen, senate, congress, court, assembly, escheat, &c, are either words not belonging to the language of England, or they are applied to things in this country which do not exist in that. No person in this country will be satisfied with the English definitions of the words congress, senate, and assembly, court, &c; for although these are words used in England, yet they are applied in this country to express ideas which they do not express in that country. With our present constitutions of government, escheat can never have its feudal sense in the United States.
But this is not all. In many cases the nature of our governments, and of our civil institutions, requires an appropriate language in the definition of words, even when the words express the same thing as in England. Thus the English dictionaries inform us that a justice is one deputed by the king to do right by way of judgment—he is a lord by his office-justices of the peace are appointed by the king's commission-language which is inaccurate in respect to this officer in the United States. So constitutionally is defined by Todd or Chalmers, legally, but in this country the distinction between constitution and law requires a different definition. In the United States, a plantation is a very different thing from what it is in England. The word marshal, in this country, has, one important application unknown in England or in Europe.
A great number of words in our language require to be defined in a phraseology accommodated to the condition and institutions of the people in these states, and the people of England must look to an American dictionary for'a correct understanding of such terms.
The necessity, therefore, of a dictionary suited to the people of the United States is obvious; and I should suppose that this fact being admitted, there could be no difference of opinion as to the time, when such a work ought to be substituted for English dictionaries.
There are many other considerations of a public nature which serve to justify this attempt to furnish an American work which shall be a guide to the youth of the United States. Most of these are too obvious to require illustration.
One consideration, however, which is dictated by my own feelings, but which I trust will meet with approbation in correspondent feelings in my fellow citizens, ought not to be passed in silence.
It is this. “ The chief glory of a nation,” says Dr. Johnson, " arises from its authors.” With this opinion deeply impressed on my mind, I have the same ambition which actuated that great man when he expressed a wish to give celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.
I do not indeed expect to add celebrity to the names of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jay, Madison, Marshall, Ramsay, Dwight, Smith, Trumbull, Hamilton, Belknap, Ames, Mason, Kent, Hare, Silliman, Cleaveland, Walsh, Irving, and many other Americans distinguished by their writings or by their science; but it is with pride and satisfaction, that I can place them, as authorities, on the same page with those of Boyle, Hooker, Milton, Dryden, Addison, Ray, Milner, Cowper, Davy, Thompson, and Jameson.
A life devoted to reading and to an investigation of the origin and principles of our vernacular language, and especially a particular examination of the best English writers, with a view to a comparison of their stlye and phraseology, with those of the best American writers,
and with our colloquial usage, enables me to affirm with confidence, that the genuine English idiom is as well preserved by the unmixed English of this country, as it is by the best English writers. Examples to prove this fact will be found in the Introduction to this work. It is true, that many of our writers have neglected to cultivate taste, and the embellishments of style ; but even these have written the language in its genuine idiom. In this respect, Franklin and Washington, whose language is their hereditary mother tongue, unsophisticated by modern grammar, present as pure models of genuine English, as Addison or Swift. But I may go farther, and affirm, with truth, that our country has produced some of the best models of composition. The style of President Smith ; of the authors of the Federalist; of Mr. Ames; of Dr. Mason; of Mr. Harper; of Chancellor Kent; (the prose] of Mr. Barlow; of the legal decisions of the supreme court of the United States; of the reports of legal decisions in some of the particular states; and many other writings; in purity, in elegance, and in technical precision, is equalled only by that of the best British authors, and surpassed by that of no English compositions of a similar kind.
The United States commenced their existence under circumstances wholly novel and unexampled in the history of nations. They commenced with civilization, with learning, with science, with constitutions of free government, and with that best gift of God to man, the Christian religion. Their population is now equal to that of England; in arts and sciences, our citizens are very little behind the most enlightened people on earth ; in some respects, they have no superiors; and our language, within two centuries, will be spoken by more people in this country, than any other language on earth, except the Chinese, in Asia, and even that may not be an exception.
It has been my aim in this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language, in its orthography and structure ; to purify it from some palpable errors, and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences; and in this manner to furnish a standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people, who are destined to occupy, and, I hope, to adorn the vast territory within our jurisdiction.
If the language can be improved in regularity, so as to be more easily acquired by our own citizens, and by foreigners, and thus be rendered a more useful instrument for the propagation of science, arts, civilization, and Christianity; if it can be rescued from the mischievous influence of sciolists and that dabbling spirit of innovation which is perpetually disturbing its settled usages and filling it with anomalies; if, in short, our vernacular language can be redeemed from corruptions, and our philology and literature from degradation; it would be a source of great satisfaction to me to be one among the instruments of promoting these valuable objects. If this object cannot be effected, and my wishes and hopes are to be frustrated, my labor will be lost, and this work must sink into oblivion.
This dictionary, like all others of the kind, must be left, in some degree, imperfect; for what individual is competent to trace to their
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