A Dictionary

Webster's dictionary in the Morgan Library

A draft of Webster’s dictionary in the Morgan Library

In order to create a standardized American dictionary, Noah Webster learned 26 languages.


Seeing the draft in the Morgan Library in NYC, I was drawn to the fact that it was handwritten and had parts crossed out.  I suppose this is because a dictionary normally feels so unmoveable, so fixed, despite the fact that it – and language itself- is always evolving in some way.



The Morgan Library rotates its books on display periodically so I felt so lucky to see the dictionary draft (I love dictionaries!).

Here are some other photos I took of the library in case you have never been.  It’s worth a visit!

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104 thoughts on “A Dictionary

  1. Imagine what Webster would have given for a word processor! But the painstaking effort shows in those excised sections, doesn’t it. Great pics of the library! Those Gilded Age robber barons did do some things well.

  2. I guess you are then allowed to take pictures 🙂
    I wanted to take pictures of the Peabody library in Baltimore but it was forbidden.
    I definitely have to visit the Morgan library. Thanks 🙂

    • I was allowed to take pictures without a flash so I was delighted (although I only had my iPhone so the photos aren’t great). I’m happy I have the photos as the dictionary draft isn’t often on display so now I can look at the photos whenever I want.

      I haven’t been to the Peabody library yet – I have to put that on my list of places to go! Merci!

  3. What a fascinating work, I’ve never seen an early manuscript for a dictionary before. I used to read my dictionaries for fun when I was young though.

    I think I want live in the Morgan Library now; I love the interior, such a beautiful place.

    • I love reading dictionaries too, especially learning the etymology of words (and just reading the different definitions of words in general). It’s great that you liked doing that at such a young age!

    • So true! After I saw the draft, I went to merriam-webster.com out of curiosity and contemplated how far Noah Webster’s work had come: from the draft to the iPhone app!

  4. Very cool! I have been there before and enjoyed the museum.
    If you are still in NYC, you have to go to the main Library on 42nd and 5th. It is awsome and one of my favorite places in the city.
    Btw, did you ever hear of the book The Professor and the Madman? Its by Simon Winchester and tells the story of the making of the Oxford Dictionary. I reviewed it years ago. Anyway, I could imagine you liking the book.

    • I have been to the main library and love it too – NYC is such a wonderful place for book lovers, isn’t it?
      I own The Professor and the Madmen but haven’t read it yet- I actually forgot I owned it until you mentioned it (I really need to get my books in order…). I will move it to the top of my ‘books to be read’ pile now. If you can find your review of the book, I’d love to read it!

  5. Stunning! I love dictionaries, libraries – all vocabulariums, one might say! The British Library is one of my favourite places – I’ll have to pop in for you the next time I am in London and have a peep at the OED on your behalf 🙂

  6. 26 languages! How is it possible! I speak five but I do mix them sometimes! He had an exceptional mind! I love the Morgan Library. As a matter of fact I am going there tomorrow! Love the photos!

  7. Ah, you always make my day more interesting. I love tagging along. Last year, I was reading that they added some new words to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. aha moment, bucket list, cloud computing, energy drink, systemic risk, sexting and man cave. Funny how we seem to add and subtract as we go along.

  8. Wow! That library is out of sight!

    When I was little, I used to make my dad give me words to look up and I would try to do it as quickly as I could. And, to this day the only dictionary I have is the same one I used then, one my dad had taken from his job. It has his old company’s logo stamped on the inside.

    Stolen words…love it!

    • What a great game you and your father used to play- I love it! And it’s so great that you still use the same stolen dictionary! My mother still has and uses the English dictionary she learned English with when she was a young woman, and we both cherish it.

  9. I love the sheer unwieldyness of the huge back morocco covered Websters that i have…It never crossed my mind that he wrote it all out by hand!!!
    It’s taken me ages to write this comment because I detoured into Blackadder… and the rest !!!!

    • Isn’t that Blackadder video funny? 🙂

      I completely understand what you mean by loving the weight and unwieldiness of a dictionary (my OED is like that). It’s so satisfying to open the tomes and then to turn the delicate pages.

  10. How exciting to see the dictionary draft. And what a beautiful library. I am fascinated by the grilles covering the bookshelves. Very sensible but not something I have seen before. Is the Morgan a lending library or a reference library or both?

    • The Morgan Library is a private collection only for viewing purposes – so it’s like a museum rather than an actual working library. However, the Morgan family collected so many incredible books that they periodically put books on display (like the dictionary draft here) so we can see them up close). I also saw an original Mozart composition written in his hand there as well, for example. That’s why it’s fun to return from time to time if one is able to!

  11. Chic! Des dicos!
    Je vous dis en français, puisque vous aimez les mots, que vos photos me plaisent infiniment!
    Je souhaite qu’internet devienne la bibliothèque des bibliothèques et que nous puissions tous continuer d’aimer les livres … communiquer et toujours mieux nous comprendre!

  12. Ah! Dictionaries! What an invention. We cannot even begin to comprehend the usefulness and the joy of using it!
    I don’t want to spam your comment section with my link so I wont link you to my blog post. I’ll just say that I’ve got many memories regarding my school life revolving around dictionaries!

  13. I love dictionaries, too. I think I’m the only person in my office who actually has one on my desk. So your pictures of Webster’s handwritten draft made my heart race a little. How fascinating that he learned all those languages and wrote it out, scribbled things out, etc.. I can’t even imagine all the work that went into it. I wonder what he’d think of all the new words in it these days?

    • Now that I think about it, it is quite rare to see a dictionary on an office desk; I hadn’t thought about that! My heart raced when I saw the draft too so it’s good to know that I have some company. I was surprised by some of the new words they added – it must be a tough, but fascinating job deciding!

    • Every library has its own feeling, you’re right. I love the mix of quiet calm and joyous excitement at the Morgan (quiet because it’s a library, excitement when you discover wonderful manuscripts!).

  14. Wow, that’s really amazing! I love how the drafts do a great job of imbuing something as dry seeming as a dictionary with all the life that a living language offers – really cool!

    > >

  15. It is an interesting point actually. The dictionaries that we used to have at home, were these thick books, which sat there in the corner of our study rooms. In fact, they were better pillows when I visited my college library and realised that there is too much to study- and I needed a nap 😛

    One single person used to do all that work ? I mean the whole of it ? And, 26 languages ? OMG ! Herculean task.
    My maternal grandfather compiled a dictionary for our mother toungue and it is in 5 volumes probably. I never thought over the work he did. But now I have immense respect for him. It is quite an achievement 🙂

    Lovely pictures! If I am NYC, this certainly is the place to be 🙂

    • How interesting that your grandfather created a dictionary; it would be fascinating to learn more about that.

      A dictionary as a pillow- that made me laugh! Too hard! 🙂

      • To be honest, I do not have things figured out in my head these days. I am not articulate, and there probably is no pattern. I read something and I react 😦
        So, when you talked about dictionaries, it triggered a chain reaction of sorts.. I just helped it to your page 🙂

  16. 26 languages, wow, a lesser mortal may point out that that 26 languages and 26 letters of the alphabet means something Masonic, happily I am not that man. Dictionaries are fascinating and very readable, love the photos of its home too, I would love to have a bit of a read there.

  17. What an absolutely beautiful place!!
    I love this line: ‘ I suppose this is because a dictionary normally feels so unmoveable, so fixed, despite the fact that it – and language itself- is always evolving in some way.’

    • That’s really why seeing the dictionary draft moved me so much- because I had never really thought of it as a work that someone created before (as odd as that may seem!).

  18. Wow! The library has such beautiful interiors! and collections too! as a non-native English speaker I really depend on and love dictionaries. Really grateful some smart people invented these back then 🙂

    • Thank you for the recommendation! I actually own this book but haven’t read it yet – I just put it on top of my ‘books to read next’ pile though 🙂 It had gotten ‘lost’ in some of my other books, and I had forgotten that I had it!

    • What an amazing understanding he must have had of etymology and linguistics, right? And of being able to read so much literature in its original language- how wonderful!

  19. This is incredible, all the work that went into making something so useful, I love dictionaries too! I cannot help it but when I go to a book store I go directly to them and have to have one right next to me. I love these photos each has a story of their own.

    • I love that you head straight to the dictionary section in a bookstore! I know some people who head straight to the gardening section or the poetry section, but the dictionary section is a first 🙂

      • I go to the poetry section next, it is weird I have my way of going into a book store or the library…In the library the Spanish section is my first, for me is like meditating I do not know why but I can be hours around books. I feel like the speak to me, sometimes I do have some thing in mind I do go get it, but is like the say something, does that happen to you?

        • I can definitely relate. When I walk into a bookstore or library, I usually go to the fiction or poetry section first, but, like you, sometime the books just speak to me and I just let myself be guided. It’s wonderful to see where I end up in these moments!

  20. Thank you for sharing such an important reminder. The first compilation of an american speech dictionary from english idiom. And american idiom has german and latin roots. This week I read a lot about linguistics. The main fact is that written words and communication is the cultural and civilizational mark of humankind. As does occur with walking, a normal child begins walking through its own and inner drives. With language, especially words, the fact is that words preceeds us and succed us, and is an inner drive also. However, there’s not exist a gene for language. A word is a cultural and human mark. A construction. I pick up the word saudade, que existe apenas na lingua portuguesa. O sentimento de saudade é universal. As várias palavras que expressam saudade se referem ao mesmo sentimento, in various idioms. I guess idiom is a specific and human dimension of communication. I come to dictionaries frequently and like very much to read dictionaries of idiomatic expressions. The legacy of N. Webster is beyond words. All the best. Another great post!

    • E sempre tao fascinante para descobrir palavras que existem em um idioma e nao completamente em outro – e, voce tem razao, reforca a ideia de que a linguagem e de base cultural. Seus comentarios e posts sao sempre tao atencioso e sempre me faz pensar!

  21. Oh my goodness! I would kill for that library. I always wanted a library like that since Belle was given one as a gift in Beauty and The Beast. Sorry I will always be a Disney fan and she’s my favorite since she’s a bookworm 😛 Great post!

  22. I knew Webster, but Your post opened my eyes. Thank You. I love dictionaries and we have had them in our home and also in my father’s home.

    I think that I can tell short story here.

    One man while sitting in jail, he committed to memory the whole series of huge dictionary. When free, he went to a quiz which he won surely. My late father told this to me.

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