Emily Dickinson and Noah Webster

Emily Dickinson told Thomas W. Higginson that for years her “Lexicon” was her only companion (Letters 404), and scholars have equated her “Lexicon” with Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (ADEL). Noah Webster lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, and worked on his 1828 dictionary there from 1812 to 1822, before returning home to Connecticut (Leavitt 28). In 1828 he published the first major edition of his great dictionary and continued to revise the lexicon until his death in 1843.

Noah Webster was a co-founder of Amherst College with Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather. Later Dickinson’s father Edward and brother Austin served as treasurers at the college (King 82). Webster also helped establish Amherst Academy, where Emily Dickinson went to school from 1840 to 1847 (Sewall xviii). Webster's granddaughter and biographer, Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford, was one of Dickinson’s close friends in the Classical track at Amherst Academy (Sewall 369).

In 1844, Edward Dickinson purchased a copy of the last edition of the ADEL that Webster himself worked on, a reprint published by the J.S. & C. Adams Brothers in Amherst. Because the Webster name was a part of life in Amherst, it is not surprising that Dickinson would use entries in Webster’s dictionary to enhance her poetic composition. Entries in the 1844 dictionary can give clues to Dickinson’s personal habits as well. For example, Emily Dickinson wore a white dress daily for most of her adult life. Webster’s etymology of candidate explains that Latin candidatus means “white; those who sought offices in Rome being obliged to wear a white gown.” Although Dickinson's wearing of white has other cultural sources, Webster's etymology may have been influential. In nineteenth-century New England, the words candidate, election, nomination, and propounded had religious connotations in the Congregational Church, so Dickinson's white dress may suggest some kind of poetic candidacy, private election, spiritual nomination, or religious choice.

Even though Dickinson studied the dictionary, Webster’s entries alone cannot account for Dickinson’s lexical creativity. Dickinson was a lexicographer in her own right (Leonard 18). She created definitions of words using core meanings, peripheral connotations, metaphorical extensions, and idiomatic expressions. In Poem 709 she defines “Publication” as “the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man.” In an 1870 letter to Perez Cowan she writes that “Home is the definition of God” (Letters 483). However, Emily Dickinson was “a lexicon-loving writer” (Eberwein 35) and lexicography suited her (Miller 153), so dictionaries and other lexical reference tools can greatly enhance any reading of Dickinson's poems. Lexical research is particularly fruitful for Dickinson studies because dictionary entries display the kind of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, puns, etymologies, and collocations that Dickinson selected for her poems.

An individual occurrence of a word can have more than one meaning in a Dickinson poem; for example, the verb decoys in Poem J5/Fr4 can mean both “lures or traps” and “stops being coy.” One word can have different meanings from poem to poem; for example, abasheth can mean “frightens” in Poem J608/Fr345, while abash can mean “put to silence” in Poem J254/Fr314. A connection between words in a Dickinson poem may not be immediately obvious, but a lexicon can document subtle cohesive ties; for example “Lark” and “Morning” interact in Poem J861/Fr905 because the lark is known for its morning flight.

For general knowledge about the origin and meaning of words in Dickinson’s poems, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a useful tool because it dates the first recorded usages of various senses of words. Readers can use the OED to see if a particular sense of a word was current in Dickinson’s time. For example, Webster does not give the meaning 'strike' for the word play of "bash" with abash (‘confound’) in Poem J254/Fr314, but the OED does have that sense, with attestations from 1790 and 1834.

Webster’s 1828 dictionary is available on CD and in many libraries, and it can suffice for basic philological research in Dickinson studies, but the best dictionary for studying Dickinson’s word choices is the unmarked 1844 reprint of Webster’s 1841 dictionary that Edward Dickinson purchased for his family’s library. Some of the earlier 1828 entries are different from the entries that Dickinson would have studied in the 1844 version of Webster’s ADEL. For example, the 1844 entry for abolition includes a second definition that does not appear in the earlier 1828 dictionary, “2: the putting an end to slavery; emancipation.” When Webster’s 1841 or 1844 editions are not available, then Webster’s 1828 edition is the next best dictionary for studying Dickinson’s words.

The following analysis of Poem J833/Fr273 shows how lexicon entries drawn from Webster’s 1844 dictionary may well serve critics, translators, and other readers.

Perhaps you think Me stooping
I’m not ashamed of that
Christ — stooped until He touched the Grave —
Do those at Sacrament

Commemorate Dishonor
Or love annealed of love
Until it bend as low as Death
Redignified, above?

Poem J833/Fr273 has several examples of lexical cohesion, or words that are tied to each other by meaning or reference. The lexical cohesion of items in Poem J833/Fr273 coincides with Webster’s corresponding entries in the 1844 dictionary. Not surprisingly, bending is a synonymous gloss in the definition of stooping in Webster’s dictionary; and concepts of bending forward, inclining, leaning, yielding, and submitting are shared by these Webster entries:

stooping, ppr. Bending the body forward; yielding; submitting; condescending; inclining.

stoop, vi. [Saxon stupian…]

  1. To bend the body downward and forward …
  2. To bend or lean forward; to incline forward in standing or walking
  3. To yield; to submit; to bend by compulsion
  4. to descend from rank or dignity; to condescend
  5. To yield; to be inferior.

bend, v.i.

  1. To be crooked; to crook, or be curving.
  2. To incline; to lean or turn.
  3. To bow or be submissive.

Even without a dictionary it seems clear that stooping, stooped, and bend are synonyms which emphasize the parallelism of the first and second stanzas. What may not be so obvious is that Webster’s etymology of the word love includes a primary sense of “leaning forward”, so that to stoop, to bend, and to love are lexically cohesive in the poem:

love, v.t. [Saxon lufian, luvian… See Lief. The sense is probably to be prompt, free, willing,from leaning, advancing or drawing forward.]

The words ashamed, Commemorate, Dishonor, low, Redignified, and above manifest the same kind of lexical cohesion in Webster’s reiteration and collocation of terms:

ashamed, a. [from Saxon gescamian…]

  1. Affected by shame; abashed or confused by… the exposure of some gross errors or misconduct,… which tends to impair his honor or reputation…
  2. Confused by a consciousness of guilt or of inferiority…

shame, n.…

  1. Dishonor.

commemorate, v.t. [Latin commemoro…] To call to remembrance by a solemn act; to celebrate with honor and solemnity; to honor… by some act of respect or affection…

dishonor, n. Reproach; disgrace; ignominy; shame…

honor, n. [Latin honor, honos…]

  1. Dignity; exalted rank or place; distinction.

low, a. [Dutch laag… Saxon loh, a pit or gulf… Danish lag, a bed or layer, a row, from the root of lay.]

  1. Not high or elevated…
  2. Depressed in condition; in a humble state.
  3. Humble in rank; in a mean condition.
  4. Dishonorable; mean.
  5. Submissive; humble, reverent.

dignify, v.t. [Spanish dignificar; Latin dignus, worthy, and facio, to make.]

  1. To invest with honor or dignity; to exalt in rank; to promote; to elevate to a high office.
  2. To honor…

above, adv.

  1. Overhead; in a higher place.
  2. Chief in rank or power.

The entries for ashamed and shame use “dishonor” as a synonym and “honor” as an antonym; the entry for dishonor uses “shame” for a synonym. The verb commemorate has the verb “honor” for a synonym. The noun honor is synonymous with the noun “dignity”, which is related to the verb “Redignified” in the poem. The verb dignify has the verb honor for a synonym. The adjective low uses “dishonorable” for a synonym. In the dictionary entries, Dickinson’s words “low”, “Redignified”, and “above” have senses which refer to a person’s status in terms of being or not being high in rank.

One could argue that the lexicon correspondences which seem to endorse the poem’s cohesion might be found in any dictionary that uses synonyms for glossing. Indeed, stoop is glossed as “bend,” shame as “dishonor,” commemorate as “honor,” and dignify as “honor” in the 1983 American Heritage Dictionary, so that reference to any good dictionary may provide insight into the cohesive complexity of Dickinson’s compositions. What is unusual is that so many of the semantically-related glosses in Webster’s dictionary would appear as interacting lexical items in one eight-line Dickinson poem. Furthermore, Webster’s 1844 dictionary has some information not available in other lexicons, material which Dickinson seems to rely on heavily to enrich the semantic content of Poem J833/Fr273. For example, the words “Sacrament,” “Commemorate,” “death,” “love,” and “Christ” appear as an explicit collocation in Webster’s definition of sacrament:

sacrament, n. [Fr. sacrement < Latin sacramentum, an oath, from sacer, sacred.]
  1. … The eucharist or communion of the Lord’s supper, is also a sacrament, for by commemorating the death and dying love of Christ, Christians avow their special relation to him, and renew their obligations to be faithful to their divine Master…

The words “Christ” and “annealed” do not appear to be cohesive in Poem 833 until their Webster definitions are compared:

Christ, n. [Greek chritos, anointed…] THE ANOINTED; an appellation given to the Savior of the world, and synonymous with the Hebrew MESSIAH. It was a custom of antiquity to consecrate persons to the sacerdotal and regal offices by anointing them with oil.

anneal, v.t. [Saxon anælan, on-ælan, to kindle or inflame, to heat; from lan, to kindle, to heat, or bake, and to anoint with oil. Saxon æl, oil. Hence, it may be inferred that oil is named from inflaming or burning.]

  1. To heat; to heat, as glass and iron vessels, for the purpose of rendering them less brittle, or to fix colors … This is done by heating the metal nearly to fluidity; in an oven or furnace, and suffering it to cool gradually. Metals made hard and brittle by hammering, by this process recover their malleability.
  2. To temper by heat…

The Greek sense of anointing with oil in the word “Christ” forms an underlying cohesive link with Webster’s etymology of anneal from Saxon (Old English) ælan, “to anoint with oil.” Webster’s entries contribute to a cohesive conversation that takes place in Dickinson’s philology.

Webplay: Emily Dickinson and Webster’s Diction

Emily's brother Austin recalled seeing "Webster's big dictionary" on the kitchen table of the Dickinson home (Sewall 1965, p. 12). Martha Dickinson Bianchi reported that her aunt Emily read the dictionary "as a priest his breviary" or book of daily devotions (1932, p.80). In Webster’s dictionary entries, Dickinson found a treasury of over 70,000 entries that provided rich texture for her unique poetic diction. Contemporary scholars now use Webster’s dictionary as a key to understanding Dickinson’s intricate semantic puzzles (see Benvenuto 1983).

We have used a WordCruncher computer concordance program to identify lexical combinations in Noah Webster’s 1844 dictionary that may have influenced the poetic composition of Emily Dickinson. Using an insert function, EDL lexicographers would start by entering a word from Dickinson’s poems into the WordCruncher concordance. Next, EDL researchers created a second list of lexical items that are found in the entry in Webster’s dictionary which corresponds to Dickinson’s word. Then researchers combined the lists to find sets of words from Webster’s dictionary entries that are also found in Dickinson’s poems. These sets of corresponding words are called webplays. A webplay occurs when the words used to define a headword entry in Webster’s 1844 dictionary correspond with an identical or similar set of words in one or more of Dickinson’s poems.

This is not to say that Webster directly influenced Emily in any particular case. Instead we use the term webplay to describe the phenomenon of lexical correlations between an author's diction and the dictionary entries used by that author as a reference tool. Dickinson and Webster shared many common New England cultural contexts. Dickinson may have discovered a certain combination of words that she liked, independent of Webster, and put them in several poems, the correlations being frequent lexical sets in nineteenth-century American English. Another explanation for ED’s and Webster’s similar “webplay” connections is that they may have been influenced by similar authors. This seems likely as Webster regularly quotes examples from key texts such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and other works that were part of the literary canon of Emily Dickinson’s day. A statistical analysis could establish how Webster-like Dickinson’s poetry is compared to many of her 19th century contemporaries.

Dickinson’s use of Webster’s dictionary has been mentioned in scholarship since the early 1930’s. The following list cites some of the critics who have mentioned a connection between Dickinson and Webster’s “lexicon”:

Taggard (1930). “Webster’s dictionary,” pp. 111, 277.

Bianchi (1932). “dictionary,” p. 80.

Wells, H. (1947). “Webster’s dictionary,” p. 278.

Chase (1951). “lexicon,” p. 206.

Howard (1957). Webster 1846/1849, p. 229, fn17.

Whicher (1957). Webster 1847, p. 232.

Anderson (1959). Webster 1847, p. 36; 1848, p. 140n.

Anderson (1960). Webster 1847, p. 31.

Sewall (1965). “Webster’s big dictionary,” p. 12.

Capps (1966). “lexicon,” p. 5.

Lindberg-Seyersted (1968). Webster 1847, p. 62; 1828, p. 70n; 1841, p. 112.

Miller, R. (1968). Webster 1847, p. 389.

Sherwood (1968). Webster 1847, p. 203.

Sewall (1974). “lexicon,” p. 270.

Mudge (1975). Webster 1844, p. 11-12.

Buckingham (1977). Webster 1844 (1841/1845), p. 491.

Patterson (1979). Webster 1847, p. 99.

Frederickson (1980). Webster 1847, p. 4.

Diehl (1981). Webster 1844, p. 127n5.

Benvenuto (1983). Webster 1844 (1841), p. 46.

Eberwein (1985). Webster 1849, p. 276n23.

Lowenberg (1986). Webster 1844 (1828/1841), p. 105-6.

Wolff (1986). Webster 1828, p. 562fn34.

Miller, C. (1987). Webster 1844, p. 154.

Fast and Gordon (1989). Webster 1844 (1841/1845), p. 16.

Oberhaus (1989). Webster 1848, p. 120

Small (1990). Webster 1844, p. 238n12.

Stonum (1990). Webster 1844, p. 207fn8.

Oberhaus (1990). Webster 1848, p. 140n.

Hallen (1991). Webster 1844 (1841), p. 13.

Lease (1994). Webster 1844, p. 23.

In his 1957 biography This Was a Poet, George Whicher erroneously cited the Webster 1847 edition as Dickinson's lexicon, and many other scholars followed suit. In 1975, Jean Mudge was the first to correctly identify Webster’s 1844 dictionary as the edition Dickinson used at home. In 1977, Willis J. Buckingham confirmed that Edward Dickinson had purchased, autographed, and dated an 1844 edition of Webster’s dictionary. Citing Buckingham, Richard J. Benvenuto showed how Webster’s 1841 (1844) entries can facilitate and illuminate the reading of Dickinson’s poems. The 1844 edition is the last complete printing of the American Dictionary of the English Language that features Webster’s own research and voice. After Webster’s death, the Merriam Brothers began to publish revised editions that began to move away from Webster’s unique style. We have no evidence that Dickinson used the 1847 edition of Webster's dictionary or any later editions.

Although many good dictionaries are available, we need a comprehensive lexicon to focus attention specifically on Dickinson’s love of words. A complete account of her word choice is important for research, interpretation, translation, and evaluation of the poems. The Emily Dickinson Lexicon (EDL) provides one compact tool that combines information about Dickinson’s word usage with material from Webster’s 1844 dictionary and other resources.