Ghost-hunting?: The Search for Henry Bohn's First Worcester Dictionary
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The Search for Henry Bohn's First Worcester Dictionary

In about 1852 an edition of a dictionary written by Joseph E. Worcester was published in London by Henry G. Bohn, which stated untruthfully on its title page that it had been "Compiled from the Materials of Noah Webster LLD," whose American Dictionary Worcester had earlier abridged. Bohn later claimed to have first published his edition of the Worcester dictionary in 1846, but evidence for that dictionary is so scarce and inconclusive that it was suggested to the author of this paper that it did not exist, that it was a "ghost." Examining contemporary advertisements and book catalogues, as well as current library catalogues, the article shows that Bohn did indeed publish an earlier Worcester dictionary; a copy is located, and an image of its title-page provided.


Henry Bohn, Joseph Worcester, English dictionary

The story of the publication by Henry George Bohn, in London, of a corrupted version of Joseph Emerson Worcester's 1846 Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (Figure 1) has several times been told, first by Worcester himself in A Gross Literary Fraud Exposed; Relating to the Publication of Worcester's Dictionary in London.1 Thus it [End Page 47] was Worcester himself who described the event as "a gross literary fraud," and I shall accept his designation and refer to Bohn's version as the "fraud" dictionary. The nature of the "corruption" was that Bohn changed the title slightly (adding the word Pronouncing) and wrote untruthfully on the title page that it had been compiled by Worcester "from the materials of Noah Webster," with Webster's name printed first, and bigger than Worcester's (Figure 2). There were corresponding alterations to the preface, described below.

The "fraud" dictionary was particularly distressing to Worcester because in 1834–35 he had been accused by Webster of copying words from Webster's dictionary in the preparation of his 1830 Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language. That was the first campaign in the so-called "War of the Dictionaries."2 Because of those earlier events, Worcester was careful to avoid any borrowing from Webster when compiling his 1846 dictionary, and he made this clear in the preface, which in the genuine Boston version is dated from "CAMBRIDGE, [Mass.], July, 1846." In that preface he wrote: "With respect to Webster's Dictionary, which the Compiler several years since abridged, he is not aware of having taken a single word, or the definition of a word, from that work, in the preparation of this. …" Since the "fraud" title page (Figure 2) said that Worcester had used Webster's materials, Bohn removed those words from the preface and altered its date to "July, 1849."

The first Worcester knew of the publication of the "fraud" dictionary was when he saw what he described as "an advertisement of a Dictionary published in London, in the title of which my name was connected with that of Dr. Noah Webster, in a way that I did not understand, and could not account for …" (Worcester 1853, 5). He might have been reading the London magazine The Athenæum of 12 March 1853, Issue No.1324, where page 336 advertised Bohn's books and included the bold headline "WEBSTER and WORCESTER'S NEW CRITICAL and PRONOUNCING DICTIONARY of the ENGLISH LANGUAGE."

The second major campaign in the War of the Dictionaries opened shortly after this (and ten years after Webster's death) when G. & C. Merriam made public in America the story of the "fraud" dictionary being sold in London. In the Boston Daily Advertiser of 5 August 1853, [End Page 48]

Figure 1. Genuine Title Page (Boston, 1846)
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Figure 1.

Genuine Title Page (Boston, 1846)

[End Page 49]

Figure 2. Bohn's "Fraud" Title Page (London, 1852)
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Figure 2.

Bohn's "Fraud" Title Page (London, 1852)

[End Page 50] Worcester saw "a communication with the signature of G. & C. Merriam, the publishers of Webster's Dictionary," which told the following story:

Mr. Worcester, having been employed by Dr. Webster or his family, to abridge the American Dictionary of the English Language, some years afterwards, and subsequently to Dr...