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A Few Words About Politics, From the First Name in American Dictionaries

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: The election of 2008, in the words of 1828, the year Noah Webster published his epic American Dictionary of the English Language.

We wanted to know how the man known as the founding father of American English defined a few common political terms. So we looked up Arthur Schulman, compiler of a book called "Websterisms." It came out last month to coincide with Webster's 250th birthday.

Our first word, from Middle English and Anglo-French, is party.

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "He defines party as 'A number of persons united in opinion or design, in opposition to others in the community. It differs from faction, in implying a less dishonorable association, or more justifiable designs. Parties exist in all governments; and free governments are the hot-beds of party. Formerly, the political parties in England were called whigs and tories.' He was obviously opposed to what he called factions, which were very common in the early republic."

RS: "Well, bringing [that] up, what is a republic and how did he define it in his dictionary in eighteen twenty-eight?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "He defined republic as 'A commonwealth' -- you'd have to then look up commonwealth to see exactly what that meant, but he goes on to say that a republic is 'a state in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people. In modern usage, it differs from a democracy or democratic state, in which the people exercise the powers of sovereignty in person. Yet the democracies of Greece are often called republics.' So he recognized that the two words were sometimes used interchangeably even though they didn't mean quite the same thing."

AA: "Well, isn't that the notion of the Electoral College, that people aren't directly -- "

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "That's right. I mean, we are a republic. We're not a democracy even in the sense that Athenian democracy was a democracy."

RS: "Well, in our republic we would have political liberty, which in the dictionary is synonymous with civil liberty. Do I have that right?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Civil liberty is an especially interesting definition, because he says it 'is the liberty of man in a state of society' -- uh, I can't read my writing right here ... "

RS: "It was 'Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty ... '"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: " ... 'or natural liberty so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty, not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. Civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty.'

"When he defines political liberty, he says it's 'sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty,' but he's really talking about the liberty of a nation, 'the freedom of a nation or a state from all unjust abridgment of its rights and independence by another nation.' I don't know that that term, political term, is one that is in common parlance these days, but certainly civil liberty is."

AA: "Now, I see that a term I've always wondered about its origin was in Webster's eighteen twenty-eight dictionary. The word is suffrage, but I see from his definition it has nothing to do with women."

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "He had increasingly conservative views as he grew older, and he came to believe very strongly that you needed to be a property owner in order to be able to vote. And you needed to be a man in order to be able to vote, so that the vote was not for everybody. You had to earn the right to vote. And how you would earn it is not always spelled out. But he defined suffrage as ' A vote; a voice given in deciding a controverted question, or in the choice of a man for an office or trust. Nothing can be more grateful to a good man than to be elevated to office by the unbiased suffrage of free enlightened citizens.'"

RS: "Why did you include the term preposterous?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, in preposterous he shows his views of what females could do. It's not his own, he's not the only misogynist in dictionary writing, but he defines preposterous as ' Perverted; wrong; absurd; contrary to nature or reason; not adapted to the end,' and then he gives as an example 'as, a republican government in the hands of females is preposterous.'"

RS: "So not a believer of women's suffrage."


AA: Arthur Schulman's book is called "Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English." We'll talk more about Noah Webster next time. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.