(Updated March 8, 2021)
I like the word “bullshit”: it’s a strong, useful compound. Everyone thinks it’s American, because it was popularized in America, but it’s English-from-Britain in origin. It also delightfully describes the most beloved dictionary of American English: the Merriam-Webster, which has become a threat to civilization itself because it’s so full of bullshit.
Americans love to say “look it up in Webster,” giving this dictionary an authority that it should lack. Why? Because it was a doomed, wrong and misleading enterprise from the get-going, a dictionary that confuses rather than clarifies, and makes the English language a much poorer tool to think. Let’s go to the start of this problem.
Noah Webster devoted his long life (1758–1843) to reorganizing the way “English” people spoke and wrote in a country that had just severed its ties with England. He had been born a British subject, which he didn’t like at all, and grew up surrounded by like-minded people: as the Times Literary Supplement explained on April 25, 2002, upon independence proposals abounded to set a new national language for the new nation of America, distinct from English: for instance Hebrew, both to distance Yanks from Britain and to signal them as a chosen people; French and Greek were also considered.
Amid this debate, Noah Webster came up with the perfect idea: why don’t we simply teach all Americans to spell and speak alike, yet differently in detail from the people of England? The TLS explains:
The result would be an “American language, to become over the years as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another”. But American regional pronunciations differed, hence Virginian contempt for the New Englanders who “talked funny”. That had to be rendered uniform. And pronunciation, Webster thought, tended to follow spelling. So the key to unifying America’s future would be a Spelling Book. Webster went to work on that.
The results were extraordinary, Jess McHugh noted in The Paris Review, March 30, 2018. By 1806, Webster published the first edition of his famous dictionary, writing in the preface that his intent was “to diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America, to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect.” Such, he added, “is the most ardent wish of the author.”
It was a new muscular, take-no-nonsense dictionary for a new muscular, take-no-nonsense nation that, in the span of a few years, blackmailed France out of Louisiana, snatched Florida from Spain and went to war against Britain in support of Emperor Napoleon, the famous democrat.
Above everything else, Webster longed to give the American public a language they could call their own: the spellings that Webster promoted have now become hallmarks of American English, including dropping the letter u in words like color, removing the k from mimic, and changing words like centre to center. There is not much sense to them, gramatically speaking: they are just not-English.
I love McHugh’s description of Webster for her easily-shocked audience. Americans may think Webster was a progressive, anti-snobbish force, but no! Read:
He was an eighteen-year-old Yale student when the Revolutionary War broke out. A passionate patriot, he enlisted during his summer vacation (though he accidentally arrived late to the Battle of Saratoga, missing the action). Webster’s contemporaries and his biographers have called him a zealot, and he even earned the nickname the Monarch for his attitude of superiority. “He was basically one of the most politically incorrect men alive,” Joshua Kendall, author of The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, told me on the phone. “Today Webster would be like a standard policy wonk on Sean Hannity, this right-wing, angry, white man.”
Webster hated the French with a passion and even started a daily newspaper in 1793 in part to combat French influence over the U.S. The American Minerva promoted a pro-Federalist and pro-American agenda while also documenting the atrocities carried out by the Jacobins.
His final dictionary, at last published in 1828, is a work of gargantuan proportion, containing some seventy thousand words, including nouns that did not exist in England, such as skunk and squash. Webster erased some of his more radical spellings, such as wimmen for women and tung for tongue, but the removal of u in words such as honor remained.
America’s most beloved politicians took notice of Webster’s efforts. On the eve of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy, declared how “Above all other people we are one: above all books which have united us in the bond of common language, I place the good old spelling-book of Noah Webster.”
Good old Noah died in 1843, but his legacy remains, in a shape that he might or might not be content with. The dictionary is not called Merriam-Webster for nothing: a firm called G &C Merriam Co., founded by the brothers George and Charles Merriam in 1831 in Springfield, Massachussets, bought the rights to Webster’s magnus opus in 1841, when Webster himself was hardly in a position to object.
Smart and enterprising as the Merriam brothers were, they secured the rights to create revised editions of the work. “Since that time, Merriam-Webster editors have carried forward Noah Webster’s work, creating some of the most widely used and respected dictionaries and reference books in the world,” as the firm puts it in the website.
This a website that millions of Google browsers look up every day, for clarity on the meaning of five-dollar words that journalists and politicians love to sprinkle upon their copy like magic dust. Instead, they find confusion and injury to their brains.
The bad influence of Merriam-Webster in the language is only too evident. In direct competition with more conservative British dictionaries, “Webster” has specialized on making incorrect meanings for misused words acceptable; in canonizing non-sensical, laughably wrong constructs; in helping to standardize new meanings to support specific political views (see the added definition of “they” as non-binary singular); and in changing the meaning of well-known words just to assuage specific pressure groups.
This sometimes happens on the basis of influential decisions such as the Associated Press’ 2020 move to declare that the word “mistress” (extremely useful and easily understood for all) is now “archaic” and “sexist” and should be replaced by the confusing “companion”…
…perhaps because it was perfectly possible that Kamala Harris, who started off her political career as the mistress of a much older Democratic Party fixer, could end in the ticket as Joe Biden’s candidate for U.S. vicepresident. A friend of Biden wouldn’t want to see multiple headlines about the former “mistress” of the shady Willie Brown.
Sometimes, the change is made in real time, simply to smear a Republican politician or appointee. Yay the Internet! This was the case in mid-October 2020 when Judge Amy Coney Barrett used the expression “sexual preference” during her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Webster’s had never considered the expression offensive until then, but that day Twitter filled up with Democratic activists accusing Coney Barret of Fascism, so Webster’s acted promptly.
From October 2020 exactly, the definition of “preference” reads: “offensive” when used in “sexual preference.” (*)
More often, this kind of thing happens on the basis of wrong, sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental, usage: since so many journalists and politicians often use such and such word ineptly, Merriam-Webster geniuses reason, that probably means they are right — and everyone else should do it too.
All that has a terrible effect on the English language, since the bad writers who popularize incorrect meanings often strip the specific meaning of one word to make it just a synonym for another word. The most blatant example is “bigotry” and its associated adjective “bigot.”
If you look up “bigot” in the Cambridge Dictionary or any other English-language dictionary from, say, before 2010, you can see its traditional meaning:
That has been the meaning of “bigot” for centuries: the word was often applied to fundamentalists (often religious fundamentalists, but not always) who insisted that their way of looking at things was the only correct way: bores who would drum up their beliefs at every time, holier-than-thou extremists, IN DEFENSE OF WHICHEVER CAUSE, NOT JUST REACTIONARY ONES.
Now, since about 2010, the word “bigot” is used by politicians and journalists as a string in a list of insults that all mean, in their uneducated minds, “racist”: xenophobe, narrow-minded, provincial, BIGOT…
This is, as I just showed, entirely, 100% wrong. However, the Merriam-Webster online has quickly taken up the cause. This is how it defines “bigot” now:
Definition of bigot
: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudicesespecially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
You can see the trick here. It’s very obvious: it has come to pass that bigots (“person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who does not like other people who have different beliefs or a different way of life”: the kind of people who berate others on Twitter for their incorrect opinions or write Op-Eds for newspapers) now have changed the meaning of the word “bigot” itself, so it now describes people whom they don’t like.
This is not only a triumph of stupidity, ignorance and (yes!) bigotry. It’s a threat to civilization itself: thought is made impossible when the definition of words themselves is subjected to the changing mores of the ruling ideology.
It’s an old threat. In “Through the looking-glass,” (1870) Lewis Carroll wonderfully describes the modus operandi of those who twist the meaning of words to serve their agendas:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
“Bigot” is far, far, far from being the only example. And this not about Americans against British only. It goes much further than that. Take another popular word: “trope.” This was almost unused even in educated writing before the last decade, until the New York Times decided to make it another of the five-dollar words that will sneak into its headlines to add gloss to commonplace conceptions. I found this graph in a blog piece that discusses how “trope” has suddently become a sort of synonym for “cliché” or “stereotype” for NYT writers…
…even though, of course, it’s never been one.
This is Cambridge’s definition of “trope”:
This is Webster’s bullshit-filled one:
Definition of trope
2: a phrase or verse added as an embellishment or interpolation to the sung parts of the Mass in the Middle Ages
Again, the same trick has been played: the traditional, specific, well-delineated, thought-provoking and thought-enhancing meaning is replaced by one simplified, simple-minded and wrong that turns the word into an unnecessary, false synonym for an already existing word.
Unconvinced? There are literally dozens of examples of five-dollar words that journalists and politicians misuse and debase, before Webster makes that violation of the language a rule:
: hesitation (as in doing or accepting) usually based on doubt of the acceptability of something offered or proposed
(I was called to attention to this one by the Wall Street Journal’s style blog in 2015 — I used to work in the WSJ back then — as they wrote, apropos BAD USAGE OF THE WORD IN THE WSJ ITSELF: ‘Ah, demur. It is a word used (and abused) more in the media than real life. It means to “voice opposition” or object, not as we and others often use it, as a substitute for “avoided the issue.” New York Times editors have speculated that writers confuse it with the adjective demure and thus have fabricated a meaning of “politely avoided a response.” We should avoid that usage.’)
: not having the mind or feelings engaged (see ENGAGED sense 1) : not interested
Cambridge doesn’t have a definition, since it’s an expression. It always meant “all,” until US writers unfamiliar with lions’ ethics decided that it meant “the largest portion”; so Webster’s informs us:
Definition of lion’s share
: the largest portion
For those interested in playing this kind of game by themselves, I recommend this comprehensive list of words and expressions that recently changed meaning, compiled by the perfectly progressive writers of Slate. I’m pretty sure that you will always find Webster’s on the wrong side of lexicographic history.
*Webster’s was the first dictionary where I noticed this pattern, but it’s not the only one. The popular “Urban Dictionary” displayed an entry for “Blue Anon,” referring to the idea that progressive activists were pushing far-out right-wing ideas to discredit conservatives. This entry was entirely deleted in early March.