The title of Peter Martin’s new book might sound like sexed-up marketing copy, but it’s not: the “dictionary wars” was the name given to an intellectual and market conflict of nineteenth-century America. Its main antagonists were the lexicographers Noah Webster and Joseph E. Worcester, and it constituted nothing less than – as Martin puts it – “a civil war over words that illuminates America’s search to identify and know itself”.
Drawn into the skirmish were educators, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, well-known writers of the era, American politicians, state and federal governments – even Samuel Johnson, who had died some sixty years before the dictionary wars began. On one side was Webster’s dictionary, the work of an American patriot and schoolmaster, linguistically progressive in its mission to foster American spelling and pronunciation. On the other was Worcester’s, the work of a scholar and philologist, linguistically conservative with its devotion to established British norms. The war began with charges of plagiarism, but quickly escalated to spy-vs-spy intrigue on both sides of the Atlantic, accusations of near-treasonous behaviour from each side’s publishers, and the best unscrupulous marketing that money could buy. The American intelligentsia were captivated. They still are, as Martin’s book demonstrates.