An A to Z of Noah Webster’s Finest Forgotten Words
October 16 is World Dictionary Day, marking the birthday of the great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Born in Connecticut in 1758, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806, but it was his two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828 (when he was 70 years old) that earned him his place in history as the foremost lexicographer of American English.
The statistics alone speak for themselves: Webster’s American Dictionary took him 28 years to complete. In preparation he learned 26 languages, including Old English, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. The final draft listed and defined 70,000 words, more than any other dictionary in history (and 30,000 more than Samuel Johnson’s dictionary had almost a century earlier). 1 in every 6 of Webster’s words had never been listed in a dictionary before; as a dictionary of American English, he radically chose to include a whole new vocabulary of emerging Americanisms like squash, skunk, hickory, chowder and applesauce for the very first time. And he famously took the opportunity to push through his ideas on English spelling reform – some of which took (center, color, honor, ax), and some of which didn’t (dawter, wimmen, cloke, tung).
Despite all of his efforts, Webster’s dictionary sold just 2,500 copies on its publication and he was compelled to mortgage his home in New Haven to fund a second edition in 1840. Three years later, having never quite gained the recognition his work deserved in his lifetime, he died at the age of 84. Today however, as both a literary and scholarly achievement Webster’s 1828 dictionary is widely regarded as both the first truly comprehensive dictionary of American English, and as one of the most important dictionaries in the history of our language. So to mark World Dictionary Day – and to celebrate what would be Webster’s 256th birthday – here are 26 of some of the most curious, most surprising and most obscure words from Webster’s Dictionary in one handy A to Z.
Defined by Webster as “wise afterwards or too late” — or in other words, the perfect term for describing that feeling of knowing exactly what you should have said (or done) after the opportunity to say it (or do it) has passed you by. Other useful after- words on Webster’s list were after-game (a subsequent scheme or plan), after-supper (the time between supper and going to bed), and after-tossing (the rolling of the sea after a storm has passed).
“Senseless prattle” or “unmeaning words,” according to Webster. To twattle, incidentally, is to gossip or chatter.
Cycopede is all but unique to Webster, who defined it as both a variation of cyclopedia (as in encyclopedia), and as a term for the entire “circle of human knowledge.”
As a verb, to daggle is “to befoul” or “dirty”, or more specifically, “to trail in mud or wet grass”. The adjective daggle-tail ultimately describes someone “having the lower ends of garments defiled with mud.”
Another of Webster’s clever compound adjectives, this time describing any sound that “sets up the ears”.
The perfect name for “an insignificant fellow” — Webster described this word as “vulgar and not used.”
An old-fashioned word for a ventriloquist, or as Webster explains, “one who so modified his voice that it seems to come from another person or place.”
On the rare occasions when hugger-mugger appears in modern English, it’s typically used to describe a state of noisy confusion or uproar. According to Webster, however, it was a “low cant word” synonymous with privacy or clandestineness — doing something in hugger-mugger, he explained, meant doing it in absolute secrecy.
A formal word for “the act of ensnaring; a catching or entrapping.”
A jackpudding is a “merry-andrew” or “a zany” according to Webster — in other words, a joker who acts the fool to make other people laugh.
As loaves of bread expand in the oven as they’re cooked, a kissing-crust forms when they spread so far that they touch.
Derived from the Latin word for distance, longinquity is a formal word for remoteness or isolation, or for any vast distance in space or time.
To stammer or stumble on your words. To faffel means the same thing.
If something is nuncupatory then it exists in name only. The word can also be used to describe a verbal rather than written agreement.
Literally means “to walk about.” The horseback equivalent, incidentally, is to obequitate — or “to ride about.”
The strong string or twine used to wrap parcels? That’s packthread.
A quadrin was old copper coin, which Webster explains was “in value [worth] about a farthing”. Its name can also be used figuratively of any tiny amount of something, or an insignificant amount of cash.
“A vile, dissolute wretch” — also known as a rampallion, a scroyle, a runnion, a pander, a cullion and (if they seem destined to a life of crime) a crack-rope.
To sheep-bite is “to practice petty thefts” according to Webster. Some of his other criminally underused S-words include scantle (“to divide into small pieces”), scranch (“to grind with the teeth”),stalactical (“resembling an icicle”), squabbish (“thick, fat, heavy”) and stramash (“to beat,” “to destroy”). Less useful is sniggle, defined as “to fish for eels by thrusting the bait into their holes.”
“Slow-paced; moving or stepping slowly.”
To uptrain is “to educate” — literally “to train up.”
Derived from the Latin word for the spring, to vernate is “to become young again.”
To wrangle is “to dispute angrily” or “to involve in contention,” according to Webster. So if you’re wranglesome, then you’re “quarrelsome and contentious.”
Xerophagy is “the eating of dry meats,” according to Webster, who described the practice as “a sort of fast among the primitive Christians.” In all, he listed just 13 words under X in his dictionary – which is 13 more than Samuel Johnson, who instead stated that “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”
Also called a yoke-fellow, a yoke-mate is “an associate or companion.”
Z fairs slightly better than X in Webster’s dictionary, with a total of 85 entries in all. A zuffolo, he explains, is “a little flute… especially that which is used to teach birds.”