Monday, June 7, 2010

Webster’s “New” International Dictionary


A few (too many) words about a dear friend of mine, posted several years ago in Favorite Books & Authors:


Webster’s New International Dictionary
of the English Language

G. & C. Merriam Company (1924)

[click to enlarge]


As far as I’m concerned, you can bury me with this book. But before you do, let me hoist it onto my work table and tell you a little about it. First, the title page. It says here that my trusted companion is “based on the international dictionary of 1890 and 1900,” and is “now completely revised in all departments including also a dictionary of geography and biography, being the latest authentic quarto edition of the Merriam Series. W.T. Harris, Ph.D., Ll.D., Editor in Chief; F. Sturges Allen, General Editor. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A. Published by G. & C. Merriam Company. 1924.”

Now, closing the book that we may judge it by its cover, we find by means of a cheap plastic ruler that the book measures roughly nine by twelve inches, and that it is a full five inches thick. The cover itself is a dirty, beat-up gold. The front and back are still attached to the spine, but are just barely hanging on, which is why I usually leave the dictionary open. All edges are frayed, and there are threads about half an inch long sticking out from the seams. If I had to guess the book’s weight — oof! — I’d say it rings in at about fifteen pounds.

There is some other interesting information printed at the back of the book. In fact, I should have looked here before getting out my ruler. On the very last page, it says that my dictionary measures twelve and three-eighths by nine and three-quarters by five inches, and that it weighs fourteen and three-quarters pounds. Page count: 2,700. Number of illustrations: 6,000. Number of words defined: more than 400,000.

Here is a small portion of what is printed on the upper half of the same page:

Why own a dictionary? Many answer, “So as to know the spelling and pronunciation of words.” Yes, but the modern dictionary has gone far beyond this primary stage and has become almost a universal question answerer. Its purpose, to-day, is to give quick, accurate, encyclopedic, up-to-date information of all kinds that shall be of vital interest and use to all people.

An Aid in Your Work. No matter what your occupation, trade, or profession, the New International will tell you how the best authorities define all its terms. A steel expert confesses that its definition of Vanadium steel gives him information long sought in vain. A judge prefers its law definitions to those of his special law dictionaries. An architect, builder, clerk, machinist, merchant, banker, doctor, clergyman, each will find his department treated by a master of that specialty who has gathered his material from the whole field involved. The man who knows, wins success, and here you have exact knowledge at your fingers’ ends.


Wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve had this dictionary for years. Countless times, I’ve used it as an encyclopedia. For instance, do you know what a “Lemoine pivot” is? The term pertains to automobiles and is “a steering pivot in which each of the swiveling axles carrying the fore wheels moves on a vertical standard at either end of the dead axle.” And here, right next to the definition, is a little drawing of a Lemoine pivot, plain as the nose on my face.

The illustrations in this dictionary are superb. On pages 946 and 947, there are excellent drawings of a gray whale, a gray parrot, a graylag (a European wild goose known for its “lagging” or late migrating), a Michigan grayling (related to trout), a great horned owl, a Great Dane, and a red-necked Grebe (closely related to loons).

Near the bottom of each page is a heavy rule, underneath which are given brief definitions of odd-ball words, some long since fallen into disuse — and by “long since” I mean long since 1924. For example, on page 1,387 we find the word “mochy” (long or short “o” is optional), which, taken from the Scottish, means, variously, moist; damp; misty; or muggy. Did you know that “Mittler’s green” is a variety of chrome green? If you’re wondering what “chrome green” is, it’s “any of several green pigments, consisting essentially of chromic oxide or hydroxide or some chromic salt, used by artists and house painters, in printing wall paper, etc.”

Meanwhile, back at the M’s, a “mixer-ess” is a female mixer. “Mizzle” means to take one’s self off; to disappear suddenly; slink away; decamp. And here’s one that describes the website you’re visiting now: “Miscreation. Noun. Act or result of miscreating; a misshapen or deformed thing,” which, of course, makes me a miscreator.

Have you ever heard the term “grapho-spasm”? It means “writer’s cramp.” Speaking of writing, did you know the word “write” originally meant to scratch, to score, to tear, or to rend? Oddly enough, that’s exactly what I do.

Ah, this old dictionary of mine. Careful now. . . . Easy on that binding. . . . Back to the inside cover we go. Someone has written here, in pencil, “$1.50.” This must mean the book sat in a used book shop for a time. For how long, I wonder? And where else has it been? The dictionary was given to me by an Armenian priest, who thought it took up too much space in his office. How it got there, I have no idea.

In flowery script someone else has written, “Norman Williams, IV. From Mother, with love. Christmas 1924. Woodstock, Vermont.”

Are you out there, Mr. Williams? If you are, by some quirk of fate I’m the one who has your dictionary. Believe me, sir, it’s an honor. I can only hope that you and your dictionary weren’t separated under difficult or violent circumstances. If you were, I am truly sorry.

Still, I keep the dictionary. I hold the key to the universe. I get to be the one who looks at the flags of every country in the world, as the world existed in 1924. I have the two glossy pages of colored photographs entitled, “Coins of the World,” which include a picture of the Abyssinian silver Talari and the Swiss bronze two-centime piece. And I get to be the one who draws comfort from these thin, yellowed pages, and from the riddles, rhymes, and meanings they contain.

22 comments:

Denise Scaramai said...

Wllian that fascinating description of a book simply fantastic!
As a child my father was referring to the dictionary as "father of the donkeys," I thought the words conveyed to me very strange and something bad...
I love books, especially the old and used to bring a story and the mystery of his way [with notes] to get our hands on.
This dictionary is really worth how much it weighs!
Thanks!

William Michaelian said...

Ah, Denise, I know just what your father was trying to say, and I like the way he said it.

Those of us who aren’t “book people” often don’t realize how words and books have influenced our lives.

Thank you!

Joseph Hutchison said...

Not only that, but if that 15-pounder weren't there, the entire bookcase might float off into outer space. Then where would you be?

William Michaelian said...

In search of words to describe it.

RUDHI - Chance said...

You make me little envious, William! It's a *weapon of knowledge* I mean...

William Michaelian said...

It’s a weapon, indeed, Rudhi: just think what would happen if I hit someone over the head with it!

Stickup Artist said...

I'd just love to see some of the illustrations in that dictionary. I like to play Scrabble and we cheat looking up words, but it's a lot of fun to discover new ones and their meanings as you describe here. It is interesting to discover word origins. That is particularly interesting about the origin of the word "write." Makes me think of scribe and scribbler as well. What fun.

Janice said...

William I have been wanting to post a comment on that wonderful book since this morning but a few of us in different areas couldn't post comments or new posts! It was just fixed a little while ago...

I love this book!!! It's priceless as far as I'm concerned! So much knowledge, facts, information even if it's by 1924's version, is still a wonderful source of data!You are very fortunate to own such a wonderful tome!!!

William Michaelian said...

Stickup Artist, you’re right, and there’s really no end to it once you crack this thing open. In fact for awhile, I was harvesting words that struck my fancy and noting them here, along with literary terms from the 1948 edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia....

Janice, I’m glad you were finally able to break through. I’ve had the same experience, although not today. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that there aren’t many of these old bruisers out there. I’ve been poking around in bookstores for years and haven’t seen one. My son and I found one slightly newer, from the T‏hirties. It looks quite similar, but it’s thicker and has more definitions. I think he paid twenty or twenty-five dollars for it. He keeps it open all the time.

vazambam said...

William,

I have to tell you that in 1999 I came across a 1956 version "Webster's Third New International" in a used bookstore in Tacoma, Washington run by a Greek man and his Anglo-Saxon wife; besides picking up some great poetry finds, I also had to have Webster, no matter what the weight (the price was only $15). I put it in one of the three boxes I finally shipped back to Greece and it is now on a small table much like yours. A great, indispensable book!

nouvelles couleurs - vienna atelier said...

fantastic
I've always been fascinated by the words, their meaning and semantics, the origin of words ...
I saw an interesting documentary shot by a man who, on foot, started from northern Italy to get to the south and during his stop asking people how they said the word "son" and here you could hear how the word changes slightly shorter distances but in the end the word "son" was overturned ...

tyours vocabulary is a tresure!!!!!

William Michaelian said...

Vassilis, I remember that day. There was a great continental shift when that dictionary was lifted from these shores. Everything lurched forward, and I wound up on the floor. Now I know why!

Laura, I love that story. And I hate to think of how many dialects the world has lost. For me, this old book keeps some of them alive a little longer.

Crissant said...

WAW! My dictionary is so small compared with this one.
I believe you have a jewel in your home. This is really beautiful.

Hugs, dear William!

William Michaelian said...

Hi, Crissant, and thanks. Whenever I run out of words, I can find one in there. But when I go on a trip, I have to wear pants with really big pockets so the dictionary will fit....

rahina q.h. said...

beautiful post William and i guess it is a very lucky dictionary to have been taken under your wing and treasured.

William Michaelian said...

Thanks, Rahina. And what you say makes sense, because books do have lives of their own....

mythopolis said...

That is a wonderful book! I only have a measly Webster's 7th Collegiate edition...no big deal. But, I love to leaf through it, and have done a number of 'word pieces' based on it. I like to look at the two words on the top of the page that tell you the first and last words on that page, and then see if they make any sense as compound words. For instance, "angel angle". I then try to interweave their respective definitions. In this case it was :

"Angel Angle ( angelos anklos): A messenger of the shape made by two straight lines meeting in a point, God, or by two plane surfaces, either good or bad, meeting along a line to whom is attributed more than human power. The space between such spirit lines or surfaces."

The combos of Spiral/ Spirit, or Cinderella/ Circle were also interesting.

William Michaelian said...

I’m sure they are. Thanks, mythopolis. What a great collection those angel-angle definitions would make — and what a challenge to undertake. I’m glad you dropped by.

mythopolis said...

Hey, try it...I also look at interesting combinations of verbs and nouns to create fictional actions. Anodize Azurite...."oxygenate the blue ore of copper". I don't know what that means, but it is a way to get image ideas. I am working on a collection tentatively called "Webster's Synthesized" it is pen and prismacolor drawings accompanied by the definitions. I haven't done Anodize Azurite yet, but it sounds sorta alchemical to me.

I like your site. I will try to keep up with you. Just wandered in as a follow-up to looking at Stickup Artist's site.

William Michaelian said...

Glad you did. I saw you there earlier today. Good vibes all the way around. If you’re of a mind, keep me posted on that collection of yours. “Somehow, the copper’s blue oar looked right in the hands of a policeman.”

mythopolis said...

Oh, that's funny...like a transcendental meth lab bust. Officer: So you were oxygenating what? Me: Azurite... Officer: You trying to be funny? Me: No, I was just looking for some kind of break-through. Officer: Break through what? Me: Umm, like these handcuffs you are putting on me. Officer: Oh my god, the hand cuffs are melting and my hands are turning into gelatinous blobs!

William Michaelian said...

Ha! Yes, it’s all in a day’s work.