Containing the Whole Vocabulary of the First Edition in Two Volumes Quarto; the Entire Corrections and Improvements of the Second Edition in Two Volumes Royal Octavo; to which is Prefixed An Introductory Dissertation on the Origin, History, and Connection, of the Languages of Western Asia and Europe, with an Explanation of the Principles on which Languages are Formed.
General Subjects of This Work
- Etymologies of English words, deduced from an examination and comparison of words of corresponding elements in twenty languages of Asia and Europe.
- The true orthography of words, as corrected by their etymologies.
- Pronunciation exhibited and made obvioius by the division of words into syllables, by accentuation, by marking the soiunds of the accented vowels, when necessary, or by general rules.
- Accurate and discriminating definitions, illustrated, when doubtful or obscure, by examples of their use, selected from respectable authors, or by familiar phrases of undisputed authority.
Noah Webster's Preface
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 thirty-five 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 my views to the correcting of certain errors in the best English dictionaries, and to the supplying of words in which they are deficient.
After writing through two letters of the alphabet, I determined to change my plan. I found myself embarrassed 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.
According to Webster, too few dictionaries in his time provided information about the origins of words.
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.
After completing this Synopsis, I proceeded to correct what I had written for 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 the 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.
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 perpetrate that sameness, yet some diffferences must exist.
Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country can not preserve an identity of ideas, they can not 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 England 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 can not 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 institutions in 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 can not 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, etc., 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.
A great number of words lin our language require to be defined in a phraseology accommodated to the condition and institutions of the people in these States, and the peoople of England must look to an American Dictionary for a correct understanding of such terms.
The United States commenced their existence under circumstances wholly novel and unexampled in the history of nations. They commenced with civiliastion 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 citizesn 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 five 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 objectives.
If this object can not 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 source, and define in all their various applications, popular, scientific, and technical, seventy or eighty thousand words!
It satisfies my mind that I have done all that my health, my talents, and my pecuniary means, would enable me to accomplish.
I present it to my fellow-citizens, not with frigid indifference, but with my ardent wishes for their improvement and their happiness; and for the continued increase of the wealth, the learning, the moral and religious elevation of character, and the glory, of my country.
With special thanks to Virginia Rawson for sharing this early dictionary.