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A book containing the words of a language, arranged alphabetically, with explanations of their meanings; a lexicon; a vocabulary; a word-book. Hence, a work containing information in any department of knowledge, arranged alphabetically, — Webster, 1882

The Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, current from Lincoln to Harrison, is the popular copyrighted “Unabridged” which has just been superseded by “Webster’s International Dictionary.” – Kingsbury County Independent, 1893.

October 16 is Dictionary Day, named in honor of the famous American wordsmith, Noah Webster (1758-1843). Webster first published his “blue back” speller, the standard speller for generations of Americans, followed by his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), so popular that the name “Webster’s” became synonymous with dictionary. Although highly respected, the cost of a dictionary was astronomical for the times at $15 to $20, and the book sold poorly.

Following Webster’s death, Charles and George Merriam purchased the large stock of unsold and expensive Webster’s dictionaries, plus they purchased the right to publish any revisions. Their new, shorter 1847 edition, at $6.00, was an immediate success. Building on Noah Webster’s original idea that the American nation needed a dictionary that reflected its distinctive use of the English language, C. & G. Merriam (later Merriam-Webster’s) has been setting the standards for American English for the past 150 years.

The 1847 edition was followed by a revised edition in 1864, overhauling Noah Webster’s dictionary, and the first to be known as unabridged. Subsequent editions were published in 1856, 1859, 1864, 1875, 1879, and 1882. In the early 1880s, the school board ordered four copies of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary; an 1882 edition sat on Mr. Owen’s desk, and was used by Laura Ingalls.

In about the year 2000, I bought an original 1882 Webster’s, the same edition used in the De Smet schools. Its leather cover was worn to near non-existence; the spine and cover-boards were unattached; and most of the pages had come loose. It is a prized possession nonetheless. This dictionary is what I use to define the A-Z entries on this website. If words used by Laura Ingalls Wilder when writing the Little House books aren’t found in this edition, I use the 1897 edition before resorting to more “modern” sources for a definition. Both are shown above, and the 1882 edition is also shown on the navigation button that brought you here.

The following “rather curious piece of composition” was written on the blackboard at an 1894 teachers’ institute held in De Smet, and a prize of a Webster’s Dictionary offered to any teacher who could read it and pronounce every word correctly. No one walked away with the prize!

A sacrilegious son of Belial who has suffered from bronchitis, having exhausted his finances, in order to make good the deficit, resolved to ally himself to a comely, lenient and docile young lady of Malay or Caucasian race. He accordingly purchased a calliope and coral necklace of a chameleon hue and securing a suite of rooms at a principal hotel he engaged the head waiter as his coadjutor. He then dispatched a letter of the most unexceptional calligraphy extant, inviting the young lady to a matinee. She revolted at the idea, refused to consider herself sacrificable to his desires and sent a polite note of refusal, on receiving which he procured a carbine and bowie knife, said that he would not now forge fetters hymeneal with the queen and went to an isolated spot, severed his jugular vein and discharged the contents of the carbine into his abdomen. The debris was removed by the coroner.



In 1887, De Smet teachers M. Elgetha Masters and M. Louise Cooley wrote the following for a De Smet newspaper:

The Dictionary in School. One of the most important factors in our educational matters is the dictionary, which certainly ought to be the central figure with text books grouped dependently about, and yet so often is used as an ornamental supernumerary of the school paraphernalia. This must be otherwise if we keep the reputation, already acknowledged, of being without distinct sectional dialects, which are so prevalent among the European countries. It devolves upon us as teachers to aid the growth of the uniformity of our language, and to do this the dictionary must be in constant requisition to check errors in their infancy.

A question frequently propounded at teachers’ institutes is, “At what age can pupils be expected to make use of a dictionary?” If I may be allowed to answer it I would say emphatically, when he enters the school. By this I do not mean that the members of the chart class should undertake to gain any information from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. We must adapt the food to the recipient. The teacher constitutes the lexicon at this period, and should deal out all intelligence called for and satisfy herself that each new word has the proper significance in the mind of the pupil.

The reading-books are abridgments of that mammoth book reposing on the teacher’s desk which the favored few, on state occasions, are allowed to inspect, and which seems utterly unintelligible to the little ones. The pupil goes step by step from the teacher’s tutelary to the reading-book, and I think if the work has been thorough and the pupil has a definite idea of the word-pictures in the first and second readers there will then be no difficulty in explaining the method of ascertaining needful knowledge from the dictionary proper.

After the pupil is once initiated, lay equal stress upon the three important points, definitions, pronunciation and spelling.

Orthography is quite apt to assert its predominance especially in country schools, and this is an evil we should guard against. For this reason I say definitions first. What advancement has a pupil made when he or she can name in proper succession a number of characters that represent an idea, if there is no idea represented to them? A practice of inestimable value is that of using each word to be spelled in a sentence. It is better than a definition learned by rote, as it necessitates thought on the part of the pupil. Another way requiring frequent recurrence to the dictionary is, to have a portion of the reading lesson rewritten, using synonyms, and this exercise will be found productive of good results. Occasionally select a few words and have the antonyms given. This will greatly enlarge the vocabulary of words at command, and will prepare for the adoring of future generations what is of rare occurrence now–a fluent conversationalist.

[Note: many paragraphs omitted -nsc]


dictionary (THGY 12, 18, 28; PG)
     Webster’s Unabridged (THGY 18; PG)