The 1828 Noah Webster’s Dictionary

First, let’s pick a Bible that is four-hundred years old. Next lets tell everybody that this ancient text is perfectly understandable by every English speaker from Wales to Walla Walla. Finally as the pièce de résistance let’s tell them that if they are confused (and the Holy Spirit is taking the day off from translation duties) that their best bet is to seek out a dictionary written 217 years after this Bible version on a completely different continent and then pretend that in those two centuries none of the language changed in any significant way.

It was not until I reached my Fundy U that I learned that some dictionaries are LIBERAL and that grammar must be prescriptive not descriptive. Language, it seems, is not a fluid thing that is constantly being updated to reflect advances in science, changes in culture, and boredom on the part of managers everywhere (seriously, if I hear one more person use the term “onboarding”…). Instead, English is seen as an unchanging constant handed down in tablets of stone from wherever-it-was-that-God-invented-it-as-his-favorite-language. Never mind that Modern English as a language didn’t even exist until the 1500’s and hasn’t stopped being updated ever since, we must hold the line and not let people weird language by verbing words!

Perhaps there is a method to this dictionary madness, however. Fundamentalists know all to well that whoever controls the language controls the debate. If a person points out that their logic is flawed, that their evidence is fabricated, and that their contentions are just plain silly then perhaps the best a fundy can hope for is to claim a conspiracy of grammatical nuance and then beat a hasty retreat to their stronghold where nothing ever changes, updates or modernizes. There’s probably a word to describe that kind of ignorance but you’re unlikely to find it in the dictionary.

92 thoughts on “The 1828 Noah Webster’s Dictionary”

  1. Arguments about definitions of words are one of fundamentalists’ core competencies. It’s something that they circle back to often. And yes, my action item for this post was to insert as much corporate speak as possible, just for you, Darrell. 😉

    1. Do you plan to proactively actualize the potential of your concept with impactful and paradigm-shifting, game-changing innovations for picking the low-hanging fruit during dangerous opportunities, instead of re-inventing the wheel?

      Hmmm? Do you?

  2. Very well said Darrell! Started grinning when I saw that the Holy Spirit takes days off!

    When I tell KJVonly’s that I have a hard time understanding the KJV, they will tell me, how easy it is, even a 2nd grader can understand it, so in essence, I guess they are calling me a liar!

    1. I’m not going to respond to that last phrase as some others might, but it is true that they don’t know how poorly they understand their precious King James, or at least most of them don’t.

      Easy example: when they interpret “Quit you like men” to mean “Stop acting like a mere man” it is clear they don’t know Elizabethan English well enough to accurately interpret Scripture.

    2. KJVO types either insult the intelligence or the spirituality of people who say they can’t understand it. I’ve heard them claim that it’s written at a 6th grade level so 6th graders of course should easily understand it and if you don’t, you’re clearly not as smart as a 6th grader, but to me, even more harmful emotionally, is their accusation that the Holy Spirit guides believers into understanding the Bible. So if you don’t understand it, the Holy Spirit isn’t doing what He does, and since the fault can’t be His, it must be yours. You must not have the Holy Spirit.

      Thus a person’s preference for a newer Bible version opens them up to accusations of not even being saved at all. 🙁

  3. During a revival at my (former) church, my class had the most students show up for “Christian School Night” and I “won” this dictionary. I left it in my classroom when I left.

    1. I wouldn’t say the 1828 Webster’s isn’t interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either, as the go-to standard dictionary for students.
      What happens when you need to look up something like “muon” or “charmed quark”?

      Actually, if you’re an originalist, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary was the model for all English dictionaries that have come after it.

      1. Yes but that was a British English dictionary, not an American one. This is also one of the reasons for the fundie attachment to Webster.

        On the other side of the Atlantic, no one gives a rip about Webster’s dictionary. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is the only one anyone cares about.

        1. As did “gay”.

          I remember in one of the Little Colonel books, there was a girl named Gay. In one part, one of her friends goes up to a girl she thinks is Gay, and says, “Are you GAY??” The other girl haughtily replies that she is not.

          In modern context, that is hilarious.

        2. I’ve known a couple of contemporary women named Gay. The name hasn’t completely died out.
          By interesting coincidence, a Gay who used to be my co-worker is, in fact, a lesbian.

        3. “Down in the valley was a queer little house with gay people in it”.

          The meaning of that sentence has certainly changed over time… 😛

  4. LANGUAGE CHANGES. Its neither a good or evil thing. Its just what IS.

    I remember Dr. Bob Jones Jr. (who should have known better) saying from the pulpit that the KJV was written in the purest form of English. Afterward in my linguistics class the teacher apologetically and respectfully disagreed with him and set us straight on the fact that there was no such thing as ‘pure English’. It never existed. Its always changing.

    So the large majority of the students not taking that particular class went on their merry way thinking that at one time in history English was ‘purer’ than it is at the present moment.

      1. As an amateur linguist (I LOVE language), I want to violently assault anyone who tries to claim any language is more “pure” or, worse yet, “better” than any other language. The sole exception is those claiming this about English; such people are obviously touched in the head and are to be pitied.

        The simple fact is that people are influenced by other people. Languages will change as a result of this. Even when left to their own devices, languages will still change; languages on isolated Pacific islands that have little to no outside contact will still develop dialects, slang, and have significant phonological and grammatical changes. I’m willing to bet that the pre-Babel language still evolved! (although, due to the long lifespans involved, probably not as quickly as modern languages)

        And you know what, the world would be boring if language DIDN’T evolve. Look at the fascinating history of the English language–every sentence we write holds enormous amounts of information about what came before. In fact, the sentence I am currently writing contains words from a variety of different languages. They’re all Indo-European, but on the way from Proto-IE to Modern English, they went through Old and Middle English, Proto-Germanic, Old and Middle French, Latin, and even Etruscan.

        1. Annie, I’m much like you on this. Amateur linguist, love languages. By the way, you see similar arguments from Salafi (and really almost any) muslims. It’s a favorite “proof” for fundamentalists, saying that “our book must be from God because it’s so perfect and pure”. No, that argument is utter nonsense for anyone who knows how languages work.

  5. Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.

    Words offer the means to meaning… unless you are talking about the KJV in which case the M-O-g offers the means to meaning, declaring that the KJV is the inspired, inerrant, plenary, preserved word of God for the English speaking people and every jot and tittle is in there by the express and sovereign will of God… unless it doesn’t… in that case the M-O-g will straighten out the language problem by telling you what it means.

  6. Had an HAC grad pull one of these out to ‘truly’ define repentance concerning salvation. The subject was changed when it turned out that I was right. Obviously, I just needed to listen to him. 🙄

  7. A while ago I caught a documentary on the Vietnam war. It just amazed me how much more eloquent the politicians of the day were with the language than the ones of today. I also noticed this with JFK and WWII speeches.

    1. They had more class and respect for the office too. That all changed when someone asked Clinton….”Boxers for briefs?”

      And well, all the other illegal and immoral shit this guy did.

      1. Please be joking, Mominator.
        Everything was all about class and respect until Clinton?
        You and I must have been living in different Americas back then.

        1. JFK was a good president for the most part.

          Nixon stepped down instead of dragging the country through hell, unlike the reprobate Clinton.

          Reagan was one of the best presidents this country as ever had.

          Clinton was/is an immoral pig who didn’t care when the press defended him and what he did in the Oval Office.

    2. I read someone, (not a Fundie) who said our lack of a common source in the Bible, and the lack of exposure to the English classics of the KJV and Shakespeare, has made our speeches less eloquent. It had to do with the rhythm and metaphors that were common in years past. Just to mention it.

      1. My homeschool curriculum has the kids listening to KJV passages to pick up the poetic diction, but doing actual Bible study in a newer translation. Best of both worlds IMO.

    1. Well, in spite of some revisionist history propagated by some 80’s grads who were part of an effort to take advantage of Dr. C when he was aging and losing his faculties, MBBC was never KJVO

      and as fundy as that place is, it pales in comparison to BJU and the even more egregious FU culture of the Church run colleges

  8. We’re back in unfamiliar territory for me. The KJV thing, while I completely disagree, I can kind of understand that someone might think it’s the best translation and get militant about it. But… a dictionary? Was Noah Webster a fundy or something? Or do modern dictionaries have a liberal slant? How can a dictionary even HAVE a liberal slant?!

    Estoy confundido.

    1. You know how dictionaries sometimes use the word in a sentence? Webster used a lot of Christian references in his example sentences which people like.

      I remember hearing that certain dictionaries were “bad”. I think some of it is that some people want dictionaries to tell people what language SHOULD be (prescriptive) while some dictionaries just state HOW people are using words (descriptive) and don’t state whether such words are “acceptable” or “informal” or “irregular”.

      1. I used to chuckle (silently for fear of reprisal) when I heard this in college. Duh. Nobody uses the dictionary that way. We almost always hear a word used and then look it up – and we want to know what the user meant. So I’ve never understood the “prescriptive” argument thing. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

        1. Most of us do use dictionaries prescriptively when we are writing and want to see if the word we are considering has the meaning we want.

          If you just assume words can mean anything you want them to mean, you will write gibberish.

          That said, yes, words mean what most people who use the words mean by them, not what some theory says they “should” mean.

      2. Ah, that’s quite interesting. I assume they then blame other dictionaries for “taking the Christianity out”, as if that was their intention and not simply the fact that Noah Webster happened to use more Christian references than most people would’ve.

      1. Oh my gosh, I LOVED World Book Encyclopedias! We had an old set from the 60’s that I absolutely adored. My siblings and I were homeschooled, so during lunch break we would usually sit around the living room eating lunch, each with a different volume, reading all about presidents and world wars and (in my case) horses. Lots of horses.

        I want a set now….

    1. Wow, I just got a flashback to the smell of the set of World Book we had in my childhood home. I can close my eyes and feel, see, smell, and even taste those books in my hands.
      I spent many, many hours reading through those hallowed tomes. Maybe that’s when my reputation of being a “walking encyclopedia” started.

      A few years ago, somebody called me “a walking Internet,” which was one of the first times I realized how low the printed word has fallen these days. People no longer think of books when they think of knowledge; they think of Google or Wikipedia.

      > Sigh <

      1. My wife and I talked about this recently. You don’t see encyclopedias. Everyone uses the internet. Our grandchildren won’t even know what they were. Both my wife and I grew up reading World Book for enjoyment. I guess they will be glued to the internet. :sigh:

        1. I understand this. I used to enjoy flicking through our encyclopedias. But a set of encyclopedias cost a lot of money, take a lot of space to store, and aren’t particularly environmentally friendly. Sadly, I think they are doomed.

          If I ever make a million dollars, though, I am going to have a library in my house.

          Sadly, that will never happen.

    2. No, but certain fundamentalist homeschoolers teach from an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 190x or 191x–I forget which. It’s on Project Gutenberg if you want to look at it. I’m not sure why that particular EB is the gold standard though.

      1. We used that one too 😯

        But we kids rarely used them, because the print was small and hard to read, the pages smelled funky, and there were no colored pictures. Or no pictures at all.

        The atlas, though, the atlas was a thing of beauty.

  9. Do these fundies also have an English dictionary of the American language so those of us on the other side of the pond who don’t speak American can look up what they’re banging on about? Or is at as baffling to you Americans?

    1. Well, since the Holy King James’ English originated in your country, you shouldn’t need any dictionaries. If you do, it’s because you’re all apostate. Did you know there’s no saved people over there in En-ga-land? I learned that from a fundy preacher.

      1. What about Ireland? Northern Ireland? or the Republic of Ireland? I am from Northern Ireland. I suppose the Fundies say that there are no real Christians in the Republic because that place is all Roman Catholic, and there can’t be any Born-Aagin Christians in the Catholic Church. I have even heard Christians from Northern Ireland say that. Oh, yeah, I forgot, the Catholic Church still burns Christians as the stake.

  10. I didn’t grow up hearing the 19th century dictionary praised, but it is something I’ve heard more and more in the past few years especially from home-schooling friends.

  11. My favorite publication of Webster’s is actually his little paper for a local scientific society, “On the effects of evergreen trees in augmenting the coldness of climates,” in which he argues that pine trees cause cold weather. It’s a fascinating bit of misguided logic.

    1. Aristotle said that plants cause rain to fall. It makes sense, right? The desert has few plants, and very little rain. Places with lots of plants have lots of rain. There you have it.

      Aristotle’s “Natural History” is sort of mesmerizing to read, because almost everything in it is wrong, but argued in a very authoritative way.

  12. I’ve always thought the study of the English language is fascinating. I think it’s important to have an up to date dictionary, as the language is always changing. Ditto with an up to date Bible translation. I think the KJV and the 1828 dictionary are both good, mind you, but it is important to have a dictionary and a Bible in the language that we use and understand today.
    That being said, since the KJV was majorly revised in 1769, probably the 1828 dictionary does help with understanding it!

  13. Darrell, thou hast written most rightly and behold thou hast struck the nail upon the head thereof, and thou hast surely stricken the nail, even upon the head of it.

  14. The big, huge, gigantic, outsize, whopping, enormous irony in the room here is that Noah Webster was a crusading language reformer who wanted to modernize English, change spellings, and distinguish the American language from British English. In fact, he is responsible for may of the differences in American and British word spellings.
    Now he has somehow become the champion of language conservatives who think nothing should change. ❗

    1. …not to mention that he wrote his own Bible because he didn’t like some of the words that were used in the King James Version.

      (that’ll make their heads spin…)

    2. He also was a leader of the movement to secularize American education. His speller, which became the standard text in many, many schools, contained no religious references.

      Here’s an interesting quote from Noah Webster, written in 1781, when the United States was newly independent, and eight years before the First Amendment was drafted:
      “America sees the absurdities–she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered ‘and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition’: She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors: She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom; She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony.”

  15. I’d definitely like to have people reading more of the classics.

    I love the KJV; I just don’t like people telling me that that’s the ONLY Word of God or that people MUST use it.

    1. I love the KJV also… I think the 1828 dictionary is helpful in understanding words as used in the KJV… but I wouldn’t use the 1828 dictionary to look up words in a current magazine.

    2. I have no problem with people who like reading the King James Version. I’ve been known to read it myself.
      I have a big problem with people who say things like “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible” (as one bumper sticker puts it).

  16. My fundy U certainly revered this dictionary, but they were at least smart enough to realized that there was no way they could expect students to learn modern English vocabulary and grammar with a 200 year old dictionary, so they made us buy the Microsoft Encarta for English classes instead (first printed dictionary I’ve ever seen that actually had a entry for ‘LOL.’ I had a giggle fit.)

    “Sola 1828 Dictionaria” 😆

  17. Maybe some of the 1828 Only folks still think gay means “Fine; showy; as a gay dress.”
    OR “Inflamed or merry with liquor; intoxicated; a vulgar use of the word in America.” as the 1828 Webster says. Thus, we can see the reason they don’t want to support the rights of people to be fashionable or inflamed. 😉

  18. Darryl, did you intend to refer to prescriptive grammar in your post? (You wrote “proscriptive.”)

    It is not my intention to hammer on a typo, but these are two different words with their own meanings, and I was wondering if you meant the one while writing the other.

    I got tag-teamed by Drs. Chapman and Rand, so I know where you”re coming from. It’s all good, my friend! :mrgreen:

  19. My dad has a facsimile edition of the 1828 Webster’s. About twenty years ago, when he was a christian school principal, someone was promoting it a a christian school convention, IIRC. He got all excited because it used so many biblical quotations in the example sentences. He bought a copy, brought it home, read us a few examples and, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t opened it since.

    He doesn’t object to newer translations, but he still reads his KJV every day. I believe two things keep him from switching:
    1. It’s familiar.
    2. If he bought a new Bible, he’d have to keep his old one for reference or transcribe some forty years’ worth of marginalia.

    1. I think it’s an interesting dictionary, and I love all the Biblical references and allusions, but it’s more historical than applicable in a modern context.

      Because of how we were raised, some of us grow suspicious when we hear people laud things from the past as automatically superior to things today. We grew up with our authority telling us that everything in OUR culture – music, clothing, entertainment, trends, etc. — was corrupt, but conveniently their OWN culture (usually the 50s or 60s) were the GOOD old days. This unrealistic idealization of the past as if people in the 1950s or 1828 or 1611 were holier or godlier or purer than people today is something we are very aware of and uncomfortable with. I think that might explain some of the tenor of the comments you’re picking up on.

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