DotW: Pictorial Webster’s

This week’s* dictionary isn’t a collection of word definitions. You know how some dictionaries have neat little black-and-white pictures? I just flipped through my Webster’s and came across illustrations for silhouette, kayak, and nuts.

This dictionary is just those images. It’s called Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities. The author, John M. Carrera, put together engravings from the 19th-century editions of Webster’s. The engravings were given to Yale University and they live there today in rows of cabinets.

I picked up the book at Trohv, a delightful home furnishings store in the Takoma neighborhood of D.C. They were excited about me buying this book because of something to do with the font, I think. Maybe the font they use to write the name of the store came from the book? Something like that. Of course, I just bought it because I like dictionaries.

It was only after I started reading the dictionary more carefully, getting ready to write this blog post, that I realized I’d accidentally bought an art book. It was originally printed as a super-expensive book on nice paper, but Chronicle Books published it as a book for the masses. You know, like me. So in addition to some nice informative written material, there’s also a short novel in the form of a glossary and an Artist’s Introduction that quickly exceeded my tolerance for artsiness.

In the preface, he mentions that that early Webster’s dictionaries had a strong New England perspective, which illustrated an overabundance of mollusks, whaling, and ships. In this book, the fishes go on and on. The pages are labeled: Fish. More Fish. One fish. Two fish. Red fish. Blue fish. Real fish. Small fish. Smart fish. Big fish. Go fish. Box of fish. School of fish. Star fish. U-fish. Jawfish. Whitefish. Dead fish. The first picture on that last page is an upside-down fish with its mouth open, although since the numbers are also upside down, I think that might be the author’s little joke.

I like how much fun he had arranging the pictures on the page. The fangs of a snake menace two scared-looking skulls (illustrating facial angles) on the first page of the Fs. Near the end of the Ms, a myna and a musk deer face off over the peak of a music shell. A croaker stares agape at a diagram of the positions in cricket. I agree, little croaker. It’s a confusing game.

Not all the jokes are original to the book. In what appears to be a bit of self-referential humor from the 1890 International Dictionary, leviathan is a picture of the dictionary. Here, it’s filed in W, across from two whales.

The author calls the book “a Wonder Cabinet of the Nineteenth Century,” which may be why I like it so much–it does have a lot in common with those gentlemen’s collections of pretty things. There’s no particular scientific reason for the lacewing to be next to the Laplander’s sledge, but they do look nice together.

Dictionary Stats: Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities
author: John M. Carrera
date: 2009
publisher: Chronicle Books
length: 483 pages
guide words on pp. 114/115: engouled; escutcheon.
introduction: The Artist’s Introduction, which I did not finish, starts with this: “Warning: Reading this Introduction may change your understanding of the book to follow. It is the apple of my artistic intent.” In the back there’s a helpful explanation of how the engravings were made, complete with photographs of wood blocks.
obscenities: Not that I see.

*I’ve decided even if I don’t write about a dictionary every week–or every year–I’ll keep calling each one the Dictionary of the Week. It’s still the featured dictionary for that week, even if most weeks don’t have a dictionary to call their own.


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