Webster's Dictionary
[ Issue 19 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Webster's Dictionary

Bikwil Bikwil is proud to feature Webster's Dictionary

Webster's Dictionary

Annette Potts here discusses a century-old mistrust in certain Australian circles of the so-called "American spelling" — in Webster's Dictionary, for example.

I was amused to read suggestions that American spellings are invading Australia via the Internet and American computer spell checks

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The So-Called American Spelling — Annette Potts


I was amused to read in the Brisbane Courier Mail (“Yankee slang rocks into ‘Strine’ via Internet”, 22/12/99) suggestions that American spellings are invading Australia via the Internet and American computer spell checks. More than a century ago the villain was Webster's Dictionary.

Soon after the publication in 1828 of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language in an edition of 2500 copies, an English edition of 3000 copies followed. Webster (1758 1843) sent a copy of the second American edition (1841) to Queen Victoria, with a message that “our common language is one of the ties that binds the two nations together”.

G. & C. Merriam and Co., publishers in Springfield, Massachusetts who bought the copyright to Webster's from his heirs, won an award at Melbourne's International Exhibition in 1880 and a diploma and medal at the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition of 1887 for their Webster's Dictionary. Reference books owned by a Moama (Victoria) blacksmith and coachbuilder included an 1880s edition of Webster's, according to his grandson, educationalist John McLaren. This presumably would have been the fourth edition (first published in 1864), known by its users as the Unabridged.

E. J. Forbes was Merriam's local manager, with rooms at 8 Spring Street, Sydney. It is interesting to note that in 1903 the Public School Teachers' Association of New South Wales had an office there.

In a pamphlet entitled The So Called "American Spelling." Its Consistency Examined., undated but published before Federation, Forbes discussed the trend in Australia to adopt American spellings.

Examples in a “Word Wars” list published in the Courier Mail article include “colour/color”. A hundred years ago Forbes argued “that there is no valid etymological reason for the preservation of the u in such words as honor, labor, etc.”  He pointed out that (at the time he was writing) “The tendency of people in Australasia is to excise the u, and one of the Sydney morning papers habitually does this, while the other generally follows the older form.”

Other publications then excising the “u” included the Sydney Evening News, the weekly Town and Country Journal, and the Melbourne Age.

In this and in other examples, such as “centre/center”, Forbes argued, the American spelling is “the original and purer English — the English of Shakespeare, which has been preserved in the form in which the Pilgrim fathers took it away with them.”

Writing on linguistics in the Bulletin (13 July 1982) Australian publisher Max Harris once posed the question: “which is the Americanism, ‘ax’ or ‘axe’?”

“Answer: neither. Tricked you. Ax was the preferred Oxford spelling in the late 19th century. The Brits switched to axe. The Americans stayed traditional.”

The editors of Webster's International Dictionary noted:

This word was originally spelt with e, axe, and so also was nearly every corresponding word of one syllable, as flaxe, waxe, sixe, mixe, pixe, oxe, fluxe, etc. This superfluous e is now dropped, so that, in more than a hundred words ending in x, no one thinks of retaining the e except in axe. Analogy requires its exclusion here.

The Oxford English Dictionary, as Harlish Goop writes in Bikwil (July 1998), was published in parts from 1884 until completed in 1928. It later restored the “e” to axe, even though Oxford editor James Murray himself believed that “The spelling ax is better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, and analogy, than axe, which has of late become prevalent.” However, to this day for “criticise/criticize” (and for that matter, “Americanise/Americanize”, “authorise/authorize”, and many of the words with these endings) Oxford dictionaries favour “ize” and describe “ise” as a variant.

In 1898 Merriam and Co. published A Dictionary of Australasian Words compiled by Joshua Lake of St John's College, Cambridge, under the supervision of Professor G. L. Kittredge of Harvard University.

First published in 1890 and the fifth edition, by 1900 Webster's International Dictionary had an Australasian edition. Bound in at the end of my 1908 Australasian edition is a 288 -page Supplement with “A Vocabulary of 25,000 additional words, phrases, and definitions, especially full in Australasian terms”, incorporating Lake's work. As well, there is “An Australasian Gazetteer”, “An Australasian Biographical Dictionary”, and an “Australasian Chronological Annals”.

In my 1910 Australasian edition, now Webster's New International Dictionary and in fact the sixth edition, the “Vocabulary” has been incorporated in the main body of the dictionary, with the gazetteer, biographical dictionary, and annals at the end. In this edition “program”, also in the Courier Mail’s “Word Wars” list, has become the preferred spelling, whereas in 1908 “programme” was favoured. In the computer world “program” has long been restored to use in Britain (and I think in Australia).

Webster's was not alone in collecting Australasian words. A Standard Dictionary of the English Language published in New York by Funk and Wagnalls included Australasian words. Some were provided by Professor Edward E. Morris of the University of Melbourne whose dictionary of Australasian words, Austral English, was published in London in 1898.

Both Morris and Lake once taught at Melbourne Grammar, and Morris in his acknowledgements names Lake as “the friend who has given me most help of all”.

Morris complained about the accuracy of some inclusions in Funk and Wagnalls. For instance, a swagman was said to be “a dealer in cheap trinkets, etc.” Webster's correctly describes a swagman as “A bushman carrying a swag and travelling on foot”.

The compilations by both Morris and Webster's Lake are considered by W. S. Ramson, author of Australian English (1966), to be “indispensable to the historical study of Australian English”.

The 1908 Australasian edition of Webster's International Dictionary includes at the end testimonials from Australasian educators, among others, approving it for use in state schools. For instance, Frank Tate, Director of Education in Victoria, said, “I have no hesitation in recommending Victorian teachers to use this excellent work.”

In her autobiography Time Without Clocks (1962) Joan Lindsay recalls that when moving to their house “Mulberry Hill” at Baxter (Victoria) she and her husband, the artist Daryl Lindsay, stowed into their old Buick, among other things, “Webster's unabridged Dictionary weighing at least twenty pounds”. In 1934 her mother married the classical scholar T. G. Tucker (1859 1946), once professor of classical philology at the University of Melbourne. On his visits, Joan Lindsay wrote, he was satisfied with “simple well cooked food, in practically any weather a blazing fire, and Webster's Dictionary within easy reach”.

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