The dictionaries we have now are so boring. They are so boring we use reading it as a superlative to show how much we love an actor. “I’d watch Denzel Washington do anything, even read the dictionary.”
There is one dictionary, written 108 years ago that is the opposite of boring. It’s magnificent. It was written by Noah Webster himself, yes the Webster whose name is synonymous with definition and synonyms.
Let’s use “courage,” a word I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as an example. When you put “define: courage” into Google, this is what you get
The ability to do something that frightens one.
It’s accurate. There’s nothing wrong with that definition other than it’s boring. You wouldn’t think twice about it, nor would you want to. We’d need Denzel Washington to make us actually care.
Now here’s the definition from the 1913 version of the dictionary:
- The heart; spirit; temper; disposition.
“So priketh hem nature in here corages.” Chaucer.
“My lord, cheer up your spirits; our foes are nigh,
and this soft courage makes your followers faint.” Shak.
This isn’t the way we use the word, but we do get to see how Chaucer and Shakespeare used it back then.
This third definition is the familiar definition. Not only is it accurate, it’s the opposite of boring. There is a soul, a beating heart underneath this definition.
- That quality of mind which enables one to encounter danger and difficulties with firmness, or without fear, or fainting of heart; valor; boldness; resolution.
Move aside Denzel, I don’t need you to make me read this again.
But it gets better.
The 1913 version gives us these synonyms:
Courage, Bravery, Fortitude, Intrepidity, Gallantry, Valor.
But then here’s the kicker. Here is where this goes from being a definition to a work of art. Noah Webster explains the nuances between each synonym and how it could be used (formatted for legibility):
Courage is that firmness of spirit and swell of soul which meets danger without fear.
Bravery is daring and impetuous courage, like that of one who has the reward continually in view, and displays his courage in daring acts.
Fortitude has often been styled “passive courage,” and consist in the habit of encountering danger and enduring pain with a steadfast and unbroken spirit.
Valor is courage exhibited in war, and can not be applied to single combats; it is never used figuratively.
Intrepidity is firm, unshaken courage.
Gallantry is adventurous courage, which courts danger with a high and cheerful spirit.
A man may show courage, fortitude, or intrepidity in the common pursuits of life, as well as in war. Valor, bravery, and gallantry are displayed in the contest of arms.
Valor belongs only to battle; bravery may be shown in single combat; gallantry may be manifested either in attack or defense; but in the latter case, the defense is usually turned into an attack.
Bravery, the most obvious synonym, fits better when used in the context of battle, whereas courage is can be used for battle or for “common pursuits of life.”
I mean, “the common pursuits of life”? The definition itself is beautiful prose.
This is just one word. Noah Webster did this for 69,999 other words. It took him 26 years to finish the 1913 dictionary. His goal was to create an authoritative book on American English. When it was published, it didn’t really sell well nor was their any acclaim. It was by all accounts a flop.
John McPhee one of the greatest American nonfiction writers alive, has this dictionary next to him whenever he writes. He consults it constantly.
As I’m becoming more and more a wordsmith, trying wield my mother tongue for my own courageous work, I’m blessed to have this as a resource.
For the technically inclined Mac user, you can install this as a dictionary on the native app on macOS.
Or you can use the website linked above for easy reference.
Have fun reading the dictinoary!