"When I had come to the last word," that old dictionary-maker Noak Webster recalled, "I was seized with a trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen steady for writing."
If only the fingers of latter-day lexicographers had so trembled on th ekeys of their word processors (or whatever) a century and three-quarters later! Instead, under R (as in retraction), the New Webstern Encyclopedic Dictionary definitively proclaims, as of this month, that Ronald Wilson reagan is the 40th president of the United States.
"The lexicographer's business is to search for truth," Noah Webster affirmed. How then did the New Webster folks get into the prophecy business? The publisher is quoted as explaining it this way: "Originally the new 1980 printing was due out after the election. We thought Reagan was the logical choice and filled in that line with his name."
But there is no recession in the dictionary trade. Earlier printings have sold like hot cakes, or old Alf Landon buttons, if you prefer. So here it is July, and what history may come to know as the President Reagan edition is hitting the streets -- ready to become a collector's item second only to those President Dewey headlines of 1948, if Reagan fails to win in November.
At this point it should be emphasized that "New Webster" has noting to do with old Webster. The copyright expired years ago, and anybody can call his text a Webster, and, alas, a lot of people do. But if the premature-president saga is a bit of silliness at the fringe, it does suggest, not unjustly, that scholarship has become a branch of journalism by old standards. Encyclopedias are a form of breaking news, and even lexicographers are writing in wet cement. Noa Webster would have understood none of this.
"No great changes should be made at once, nor should any change be made which violates established principles," he announced as his guiding rule. "Real improvements should never be checked, but the changes which are made by the fashionable part of a nation, who are sometimes ignorant and often capricious and proud of singularity, prove not infrequently to be gross improprieties, which, like modes of dress, have a temporary currency, and are then condemned to neglect and oblivion." This, as Webster acknowledged, was also the philosophy of the greatest of English lexicographers, Samuel Johnson.
A strange thought in our time, when the more eager lexicographers, monitoring radio and television, cannot wait to incorporate the latest buzz words -- practically as an act of anticipation.
It is no disparagement to say that modern dictionaries must be projects by committee, if not by a bank of computers. Still, there is something rather marvelous, even heroic about the early dictionaries -- as much the work of one author as a novel. Dr. Johnson, quill in hand, chose the words he included, defined them, supplied their derivations, and then illustrated their uses with a little bouquet of quotes.
Webster has been pictured, working at a semicircular table two-feet wide, stacked with the dictionaries and grammars of 20 languages. Each afternoon at four o'clock Mrs. Webster brought him fruit and nuts and cake. Then back to work.
These men could be personal to a fault. One feels their eccentricities on every page. They did not know they were supposed to be objective. We read what sort of stern parent Webster was in his illustrations on words like government. "Children," he wrote, "are often ruined by a neglect of governmentm in parents." We even learn how he like his apples cooked, under his definition of taste: "Apples boiled in a brass kettle sometimes tastem of brass."
Johnson stooped to using his dictionary to play ethnic jokes on his Scottish copying clerks. thus, "Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Indefensible (sniff). Quite indefensible, sir.
But what neither Johnson nor Webster would have done was to elect a president of the United States four months before his time. They liked to be original rather than just novel, and that is how they may differ from us.