The author of the biographies Samuel Johnson and A Life of James Boswell recounts the patriotic fervor in the early American republic to produce a definitive national dictionary. But what began as a cultural war of independence from Britain devolved into a battle among lexicographers, authors, scholars, and publishers, all vying for dictionary supremacy and shattering forever the dream of a unified American language.
The book’s potentially dry material is vivified by engaging, sometimes dramatic prose, and the complex tangle of rivalries and relationships is fascinating. Discussions on lexicography are technical without being abstruse, and they balance well with the biographical details. Historically informative, the book is also an opportunity for American self-reflection. Substitute 'internet' or 'social media' for 'newspapers' or 'pamphlets,' and several passages of The Dictionary Wars could have been pulled from some modern-day editorial or blog lamenting the destruction of public discourse. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. With an impressive breadth of research, The Dictionary Wars invites contemplation of the ways in which language itself can affect the soul of a nation.
Martin’s book includes a substantial amount of archival research which will undoubtedly be a boon to scholars of the dictionary wars. His research fleshes out the biographies of some of the players ... There are nuanced arguments to be made about this era and this rivalry. It is a shame, then, that Martin flattens Worcester and Webster—and therefore the story—into Good Lexicographer and Bad Lexicographer ... There are grains of truth in all these depictions, but Martin’s commitment to the Worcester-as-underdog narrative leads him into some shaky scholarly territory. Martin often waves away charges against Worcester that should be investigated ... Martin also indulges in some logical leaps not supported by textual evidence ... There is, however, a more significant problem to contend with: the book contains many errors, particularly quotations from easily accessible primary sources ... The typos, misconstructions and mistakes to be found are so numerous as to cast doubt on the accuracy of the transcribed manuscript and archival material that Martin uses and which the reader can’t check. Moreover, Martin selectively edits many of his quotations, sometimes sloppily, in ways that mislead the reader.