An Old Dictionary: A Glimpse into the Past

A worn dictionary.

At a white elephant gift exchange over the holidays I received an angel made from Q-tips. Accompanying the angel was a 5th edition Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that belonged to my Great-Grandfather. The binding has deteriorated, a few pages have fallen out, and tape holds the covers in place.

I love old books. This dictionary was published in 1943, though parts of the introductory matter were produced in 1941. I found the New Words Section particularly interesting. One theme is prevalent in the words–or in some cases definitions–that Merriam-Webster added in 1941:

axis, n. An alliance entered into between two or more major powers to demonstrate their solidarity of interests and to insure collaboration and mutal support in foreign politics.

blitzkrieg, n. War conducted with lightninglike speed and force. (The full entry includes the colloquial term blitz as well as a reference to recent events in Poland.)

Nazism, n. The body of political and economical doctrines held and put into effect by the National Socialist Geramn Workers’ party in the Third German Reich.

Also on the list are concentration camp, dive bomber, Gestapo, heil, Fuhrer, Luftwaffe, Panzer, submachine gun, swastika, and Third Reich.

As I paged through the book I thought about what things were like when it was printed. World War II was raging. It must have been a scary time.

Other words added in 1941 are a bit less frightening:

ace: (as an adjective) Defined as adj. Of first rank, or surprassing, in excellence.

barbecue: (as a transitive verb) Some people might view this as a travesty. To roast or grill (esp. pork or beef) slowly in sizeable pieces before an open fire. To some people barbecue will always be a noun and never be the act of grilling. I can appreciate this position, though I do not feel passionately about it.

bra: The folks at Merriam-Webster decided that the shortened form of brassiere was worthy of its own inclusion. Yet they used a different definition for it: n. A close-fitting outer waist for women, often with sleeves. Really? Often with sleeves?

Bronx cheer: Thank you Yankees fans.

jitterbug: Defined as n. A devotee of swing music impelled by the rhythm to wild gesticulations. Very nice.

softball: Introduced as a modified form of baseball, it also references the ball used in “indoor baseball” as if the reader will know exactly what it is. Evidently a softball is smaller and harder than an indoor baseball but larger and of the same hardness as a regular baseball.

This old dictionary gives a glimpse into the past. A time when computer did not merit its own entry. Software and DNA do not appear. I also noticed that the old dictionary attempts to avoid being offensive, avoiding many slang terms and things viewed as vulgar. Yet some of the content pertaining to ethnicity manages to be incredibly offensive.

I wonder how many people study different editions of dictionaries and look at the changes in definitions, the inclusion or exclusion of words, and way society influences those factors?

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1 Comment

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One response to “An Old Dictionary: A Glimpse into the Past

  1. Sara

    ha, the jitterbug. Such a valuable piece of information.

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