The lexicographer’s obsession

Jesse Sheidlower in the New York Times Book Review of 5/29/31: “Colonial Polymath: Noah Webster was a journalist, reformer, and lexicographer”, a review of Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture.

Early on, we discover that

with all his accomplishments, Webster was also notably dislikable. Arrogant, condescending, humorless and socially tone-deaf, he alienated and insulted his friends, political allies and potential professional contacts. With “The Forgotten Founding Father,” the freelance journalist Joshua Kendall gives us a lively and insightful biography, the best picture we have of Webster’s complex character.

Our prickly lexicographers.

It gets better. The conclusion of the review:

The emphasis on these aspects of Webster’s personality is one of the strengths of Kendall’s book; few other biographies give such detail to his dislikability. Kendall marshals a wide range of evidence to argue that Webster suffered from what we now call obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, from Webster’s own diaries (where Webster regularly mentioned his “extreme depression,” “anxiety” and “nervous affections”) to the monomaniacal attention he paid to subjects that he found engaging (he would count the number of houses in each city he visited in his travels). While such after-the-fact diagnoses may seem overly influenced by modern perspectives, Webster’s personality traits are entirely familiar to anyone acquainted with an actual lexicographer. (Kendall’s previous book, “The Man Who Made Lists,” was a biography of Peter Mark Roget, another depressive who distracted himself with obsessive organizing.) The skills required to do this kind of linguistic work have their costs.

The “entirely familiar to anyone acquainted with an actual lexicographer” is a wonderfully wry comment, since Sheidlower is himself a distinguished lexicographer. As the Book Review identifies him:

Jesse Sheidlower is the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and the president-elect of the American Dialect Society.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: