Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick-tionaries
Herman Melville’s whaling adventure Moby-Dick (1851) begins far away from the ocean. The first character we meet is an Usher to a grammar school (a junior school) who supplies an etymology of the word whale. The Usher’s etymology is the first indication to readers that there will be two parallel quests in this whale of a tale. In one, Captain Ahab hunts Moby Dick, the white whale who took his leg. In the other, Ishmael – the schoolmaster turned whaleman who narrates the book – seeks to understand, describe, and define the mysterious sperm whale. As well as a novel, Moby-Dick is effectively an encyclopaedia or dictionary of whales and whaling.
The Usher is a ridiculous figure: ‘He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world’. But Melville uses him to make a serious point about the power of ‘lexicons’, or dictionaries. The proximity of the flags to the Usher’s books suggests that dictionaries, like ships, can take readers around the world. In fact, Melville later describes Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language as an ‘ark’.
A national language?
Melville owned a copy of the 1846 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary, which was originally published in 1828. Webster’s dictionary was hailed as an important step towards American cultural independence because it included and defined words based on American usage rather than British tradition. But it is difficult to know whether Webster’s alternate spellings of words like ‘center’, ‘color’ and ‘defense’ were an attempt to nationalize language or were part of an international movement to rationalize English spelling.
The Usher uses Webster’s entry for ‘whale’ in his etymology: ‘This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted’. But he also gives a slightly different etymology from a dictionary compiled by an Englishman, Charles Richardson: ‘It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. Wallen; A.S. Walw-ian, to roll, to wallow’. The Usher rejects national boundaries for the English language by using dictionaries from both sides of the Atlantic. He then provides translations of the word ‘whale’ in thirteen languages. This global perspective shows the whale’s immense importance as it stretches from France to Fiji, and back in time to Ancient Greek and Latin.
A whale-ly big dictionary
For Ishmael, there is only one dictionary that can assist him in the leviathan task of writing about whales. ‘I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me’. Melville didn’t actually purchase Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, but he did buy a copy of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson when visiting England in 1849 – just before he started writing Moby-Dick.
In Melville’s novel, Johnson’s own body weight mirrors his weighty volume, made even larger in its ‘huge quarto edition’. In fact, Webster’s dictionary was more extensive than Johnson’s, having 70,000 headwords compared to Johnson’s 43,500, but Ishmael might also have found Johnson’s expansive style more suited to the whale’s size. Whereas Webster preferred concise definition, Johnson’s dictionary illustrated linguistic usage with extensive quotation.
But even Johnson’s dictionary is not big enough to contain everything about whales. Ishmael observes that it excludes the word ‘gam’, despite the fact that it ‘has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees’. So Ishmael gives a definition of his own, mimicking dictionary formatting:
‘GAM.* NOUN – A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other’.
Here, Ishmael constructs his dictionary on Webster’s principles by having his definition follow standard American usage.
Melville in the OED
Melville would be pleased to know that gam has now made it into both OxfordDictionaries.com and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): a bigger bulk than even Johnson’s expansive tome. Moby-Dick (under its English title The Whale) provides a quotation that illustrates this sense of gam. In total, there are over 900 citations of Melville’s works in the OED.
In Moby-Dick, Ishmael struggles with defining the whale. ‘Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not and never will’. Yet Moby-Dick is still helping us to define the whale, appearing seven times in that word’s OED entry. More importantly, Melville’s presence in the OED shows that his whaling dictionary has influenced language use on both sides of the Atlantic.