Webster VS Johnson

In his widely-known essay, “Différance,” french theorist Jacques Derrida explains the notion of Play, that everything is in a constant flux that pertains to time, context, and geographic place (space). Before reading Seth Lerer’s take on dictionaries in his book, Inventing English, I hadn’t thought of the context as much as the content. Suddenly, questions of authorship and historical/social/spacial implications became integral to how I perceived a dictionary and how credible that dictionary was, vis-à-vis the person reading it, of course.
Lerer delves specifically into the Johnson and Webster dictionaries, and in an effort to study the dynamics of lexicography in line with the aforementioned point, I will draw a comparison between three sample definitions taken from both dictionaries to see what each lexicographer said about each word. I will then study the implications of what was included and excluded in the definitions provided.

The first word I looked up was “woman.” The very first thing I noticed about the definitions was how similar they were: both define a woman as the “female of the human race,” the essential difference between the two being Webster’s small but necessary addition of “grown to adult years.” This becomes more interesting in light of Joseph Reed’s essay on the two dictionaries. Reed writes that there is “revision” and “transfer” from Johnson’s dictionary to Webster’s, which Reed likens to plagiarism. Here, we see that Webster only adds to Johnson’s existing definition, further clarifying it. He does not present a more contemporaneous definition of the word.

Both lexicographers provide instances of use for both words. Johnson’s examples are derived from literature (Shakespeare here) as opposed to Webster who relies largely on the Bible and other religious texts, both for this specific definition and for many others.

Another thing to note about the definitions is how they both Other the woman to the man. In both dictionaries, the woman in defined as the female of the human race, but the man (noun) is defined as a “human being,” which says a lot about inherently patriarchal discourses, even at the time. Of course, our understanding of gender today is not binary, but it is interested to trace the origins or older traces of the system of patriarchy.

Finally, on the topic of origins, it’s interesting to study the sources of the word in both dictionaries. As per Reed, Webster accuses Johnson of “inaccurate etymologies,” yet Webster derives the term from “womb” and “man,” which is much less credible than Johnson’s Saxon-originated “wifmann.”

The second word I looked up was “adultery.” Again, the definitions are as follows:

Johnson: The act of violating the bed of a married person.

-Webster: Violation of the marriage bed; a crime, or a civil injury, which introduces, or may introduce, into a family, a spurious offspring.

Webster provides a much more detailed and exemplified definition to the word, while Johnson sticks to his concise and blunt definition. I found it interesting to study this word for what it bears in insight to the growing cultures and policies if the time. Comparing both definitions would help one make a timeline that traces the evolution of cultural perceptions and official understanding of adultery. Webster adds that adultery in most cases involves a child out of wedlock, with which come a lot of questions pertaining to certain child-related legalities. In short, Webster’s is a more complicated and weighted definition. That said, adultery as we understand it today is simply an affair, but rarely one that involves a child, making Johnson’s definition more fitting.

The third and final word brings me back to Derrida’s concept of Play, providing a perfect linguistic example of it. Johnson defines the word “awful” as something purely positive, something “that with strikes with awe.” Webster, on the other hand, while keeping those same definitions, also adds that “common people [today] use it in the sense of frightful, ugly, detestable.”

  Johnson’s definition of “awful”

Both definitions are near completely similar, having the same sources, same cited examples (literature; Shakespeare), with the only difference being Webster’s addition of the negative understanding of the word. That said, it’s interesting to note that the negative meaning of the word was a secondary one to Webster, as he states the positive first. Still, he acknowledges the fact that common people used it in its negative sense, meaning he was aware of the more or less prevailing meaning, but chose to keep the positive one as the primary meaning. Today, “awful” in its positive understanding has fallen into disuse — it is obsolete. 

This assignment helps us realise how language adapts and assimilates with the currents of time. Not only has this made me stop to think twice about a dictionary, it has actually made me consider the lexicographer first, and that the dictionary — which is more or less a trusted source of information — is what the lexicographer makes it, and can be subjective in every sense. 

Following is a video that contains a very brief, very simple introduction to the impact Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had on the literary world:


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