This symbol has been particularly powerful in the United States. That may be because print dictionaries have embodied certain ideas about democracy and capitalism that seem especially American—specifically, the notion that “good” English can be packaged and sold, becoming accessible to anyone willing to work hard enough to learn it.
Massive social changes in the 1960s accompanied the appearance of Webster’s Third, and a new era arose for dictionaries: one in which describing how people use language became more important than showing them how to do so properly. But that era might finally be coming to an end, thanks to the internet, the decline of print dictionaries, and the political consequences of an anything-goes approach to language.
The first English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604. In it, he announces that he is not writing for scholars or experts, but for “ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskillful persons”—that is, those who had traditionally been deprived of educational opportunities. Cawdrey’s book was, in a way, a self-help book as much as a reference book. Because girls rarely had the opportunity to attend school and were not admitted to British universities, women would have relied on Cawdrey to help them to (in his words) “more easily and better understand many hard English wordes.” It’s unclear if Cawdrey was truly interested in female empowerment, or if he simply saw an opportunity for financial gain in women’s predicament. Still, the fact that his book was marketed to them is notable, because this was the era when Britain’s literary glass ceiling was broken: Elizabeth Cary, Margaret Cavendish, and Aphra Behn weren’t just writing private letters to friends or scribbling in secret; they were professional authors selling published works.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson, a bookseller’s son from Lichfield, published what is still arguably the greatest achievement by any English-language lexicographer, A Dictionary of the English Language. The two-volume book brought him success and widespread acclaim. In compiling his opus, Johnson didn’t just improve his own status, he helped others along, too. Among the beneficiaries of his accomplishment were Johnson’s fellow provincials. Although Johnson had needed to leave the University of Oxford after only one year due to a lack of financial means, throughout England there were other strivers with even less education. Many of them turned to dictionaries to help them overcome their limited vocabularies and poor spelling.
In America, dictionaries had a similarly leveling effect. Noah Webster was an eccentric and zealous patriot who saw a uniquely American English language as a way to turn former English subjects into American citizens. In the late-18th century, Webster began producing dictionaries and spellers. In 1828, he published his masterwork, An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster’s dictionary didn’t just define English words for people who already had good facility with reading and writing, like writers and teachers and ministers. His dictionary also helped the sort of people who didn’t come from upper-crust neighborhoods in New York or Boston exchange their native dialects for standard American English. Some enslaved people (most notably Frederick Douglass) were able to get ahold of dictionaries and spellers, which they used, defiantly, to teach themselves to read and write. When immigration exploded later in the century, newcomers used dictionaries partly to better understand the nuances of their adopted language, partly to efface their national origins.