Episode 80: Ill-Defined History: The ‘F’ Word

It seems like the history of definitions and dictionaries might be a bone dry topic. However, things are seldom what they seem. Things are complex, and complicated, and dark and ill-defined. Until they are not. This is the story of how words come to have definitions; and the battles, and madness, and passions that have shaped the language and the meanings we agree upon today. We’ll kick this week off by exploring the fascinating false etymology of everyone’s favorite foul word. Then learn about the American language, and the way in which its chief lexicographer hoped to shape the national identity. Finally we will explore the relationship between a criminally insane American Civil War doctor and the finest dictionary ever compiled.



Etymology of the the ‘F-Word’ – Snopes


Inside the Word World of Merriam-Webster

2016 Word of the Year: Behind the Scenes

A stabilizing in uence :: the “war of the dictionaries,” 1848-1861 – Leach

Noah Webster and the American Dictionary By David Micklethwait


The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Disgraced by Miscarriage: Four and a Half Centuries of Lexicographical Belligerence by Jack Lynch – Rutgers University

A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States by Jill Lepore A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States by Jill Lepore

Noah’s Mark by Jill Lepore – The New Yorker

Noah Webster’s American English – Past is Present

Why isn’t ‘American’ a language? by James Harbeck – BBC

Four things you never knew about Noah Webster, the ‘forgotten man’ of American history by Marc Sollinger – PRI

The Forgotten Founding Father

A Stabilizing Influence: the “war of the dictionaries,” 1848-1861 by James F. Leach – University of Massachusetts Amherst

Noah Webster On Defining American Culture – Radio Boston

Noah Webster and the Dream of a Common Language by Christopher Dobbs – Connecticut History

Leaders in Education: Noah Webster

War of Words: The Story Behind Webster’s Third by Joseph Epstein – The Weekly Standard

Looking Back With Aurore Eaton: War of words: Worcester vs. Webster by Aurore Eaton – New Hampshire Union Leader

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage by David Foster Wallace – Harper’s Magazine

The life and times of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel by Aidan Dunne – The Irish Times

10 Hoax Definitions, Paper Towns, and Other Things That Don’t Exist by Adrienne Crezo – Mental Floss

The incredible story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel and dictionary tomfoolery By Erin Servais – Grammar Party

Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall – Dictionaries and Meanings – British Library

Mulcaster’s Elementarie – Dictionaries and Meanings – British Library

The History of English Dictionaries


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