Humor in Dictionaries

In his novel Jinny the Carrier Israel Zangwill1 humorously illustrates the importance of ABC books which by the 19th century had evolved from single-page hornbooks and small pamphlets to full-size books. In addition to teaching the alphabet and the basics of reading, they included writing samples, grammars, dictionaries and other educational material.

In the novel Jinny Boldero uses Daniel Fenning's The Universal Spelling-Book to help her compose business letters to Will Flynt. She uses it to check spellings, verify definitions and find synonyms. The Universal Spelling-Book was difficult to use and relying on it could result in humorous results.

The Universal Spelling-Book

Daniel Fenning (1710?-1767) was a prolific writer of textbooks on the English language, arithmetic, geography and other subjects. Prior to publishing his first book he had been a school teacher. His Universal Spelling-Book was first published in 1756 and was still being used more than 100 years later.2 It was popular both in England and the American colonies.

title page of Universal Spelling-Book

The first part is designed to teach children to read. Other sections include a catechistic grammar of English, "pleasant Fables and useful Stories," model verses, prayers, and tables of various sorts: homophones, abbreviations, Roman numerals and so on. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to tables of "near 5000 Words" with definitions "for the better Information of all young Persons in the Shop and Compting house; as also for such adult Persons as are unacquainted with the Meaning of Words, and have not the Advantage, or are not capable of purchasing a Dictionary" (Preface, 10th edition). There are also other bits of information such as how to make "good ink" and "red ink." As material was added (for example, tables of weights and measures, multiplication tables, historical dates) the book grew from about 120 pages to around 150 pages.

The book would have been used by those learning to read and as a reference work. While reading, they could use it to look up unfamiliar words; while writing, they could use it to check spellings and find synonyms as Jinny does. Whatever it's qualities as a reading textbook, by modern standards it is not a particularly good reference work due to its format, incompleteness and inconsistency. For example, the abbreviations for February, October, November and December are included in a table but not those for the other eight months.

The definition lists are arranged by number of syllables, then by parts of speech, and then alphabetically -- for example, "Nouns Substantives of two Syllables" and "Verbs of three Syllables." This format was probably intended to introduce students to longer and more difficult words as their reading abilities increased, but there is no pedagogical reason for arranging words by syllable count. A person learning to read would surely be familiar with or need to know some three-syllable words, such as bravery, history, idiot and yesterday, long before two-syllable words, such as efface, obtrude and prorogue.

As a speller-dictionary there are several problems with Fenning's book. First it's obviously more difficult to find a word in multiple lists than in a single list. man sitting at desk reading

Second, you need to know the part of speech and the number of syllables of the word you are looking up. Only nouns, adjectives and verbs are listed; you are out of luck if you need to confirm the spelling of an adverb or conjunction. The number of syllables of a word could depend upon where you are from and, therefore, how you pronounce it. You might be surprised to (eventually) find pigeon and ocean in a list of three-syllable words. You would not find the word that you pronounce as gov'ment because government is in Part III, Table IV, "Nouns Substantive of three Syllables." The word you pronounce as o'er is located in Part II, Table XVIII, "A Collection of Words alike in Sound, but different in Spelling and Signification": oar, o'er, ore. (In the same table calais ("in France") and chalice ("a Cup") are listed together as sounding alike.) Probably people simply searched through list after list until they found the word they were looking for.

Third, there are many inconsistencies. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday are defined but not Monday, Wednesday or Sunday; it's unlikely the definitions would be needed but the spellings might be. For no apparent reason names sometimes appear in the lists, such as Walter ("a Man's name"), Catherine ("a Woman's name"), Zabulon ("a Dwelling Place") and Scaramouch ("a Posture-Master").

Fourth, there are lots of circular definitions: hazard is "to venture" and venture is "to hazard"; perfidy is "treachery" (not defined) and treacherous is "perfidious" (not defined); dogmatic means "positive" and positive means "dogmatical."

Fifth, others are dead-end definitions: dotage is defined as "doting" which is not defined; a comedy is "a Play" and a tragedy is "a mournful Play" but neither play nor mournful is defined; glorious means "full of glory" (not defined); a leper is "a leprous person" (not defined).

governess watching boys do lessons

Sixth, whether the definition lists were used by students to learn (memorize) meanings or by writers and readers to look up definitions, they weren't very good. All of them are restricted to only a few words -- something to which Fenning admits: "I own, indeed, the Explanation of Words are short, and, in many respects, a little deficient" (Preface).

Fenning may have created his own definitions or taken them from other works. Only one really good dictionary was available at the time: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. Fenning started to compile his spelling book in 1739 and published the first edition in 1756. He lived in London and surely would have heard of Johnson's Dictionary published in 1755.

Fenning's definitions did not change (improve) much over the years (there were more than 90 editions of the Universal-Speller by 1860), but it seems that he did occasionally consulted Johnson's Dictionary. For example, he defines turtle as "a Bird." Johnson's first definition is "a species of dove." The reference is to the shortening of turtledove as in "You are my sweet little turtle." Johnson adds "[i]t is used among sailors and gluttons for a tortoise" and Fenning later changed his definition to "a sea tortoise" which may be more accurate, except that tortoise is defined as "a shell fish."

In early editions a cynic is as "a sour crabbed Fellow." Johnson says a cynick is "[a] philosopher of the snarling or currish sort; a follower of Diogenes; a rude man; a snarler; a misanthrope." In later editions Fenning changed his definition to "a snarling philosopher" (neither word is defined although philosophy is "the knowledge of natural and moral things").

Today we might say an upholder is "someone who upholds, sustains, or maintains." Fenning defines it as "an undertaker" which seems odd, but Johnson defines it as "a supporter; a sustainer in being; an undertaker" and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as "a dealer in small wares; a supporter; an undertaker." But even allowing for changes in meaning over time some of Fenning's definitions are simply incorrect. Grimace is defined as "hypocrisy" and bituminous as "clammy." Neither definition can be found in the OED.

Fenning defines kidnapper as "a man-seller" (which seems more appropriate for slaver). Johnson defines it as "[o]ne who steals human beings; a manstealer." The emphasis on stealing rather than selling is more accurate: kidnappers may sell but they always steal.

Some definitions are so general as to be useless: parsley, spinage, calamint, gentian and lavender are defined as "an Herb"; a sparrow, swallow or pelican is "a Bird."

Sometimes you need to know what a word means before you can understand Fenning's definition: a tavern is a "house well known"; a horse is "a well-known animal"; and an insect is a "small living creature." Tinkle is defined as "with a bell" and a phoenix is "a rare bird" (indeed!). He defines divorce as "put away" a legal-religious phrase that you must already be familiar with; otherwise, you might write that you divorced the dishes into the cupboard.

Some are just badly composed and thus misleading or vague. Students would probably understand that liver means "one who is alive" in the definitions of libertine ("a dissolute liver") and survivor ("the longest liver"), but would they comprehend the distinction between incompetent ("not fit") and incongruous ("unfit")?

Ubiquity is defined as "a being in all Places" instead of "a state of being in all Places." Would the reader notice that "being" is not capitalized and thus ubiquity is not a synonym for God?

Tonnage is defined as "duty to the King" (duty is not defined). Would readers understand that duty means something like "tax" ("I must pay the tonnage on my shipment")? Or would they think it meant "obligation" and write "Good citizens always do their tonnage"?

His short definitions omit connotations and nuances of meaning. Fenning defines carnal as simply "fleshy" (which isn't defined). Robert Cawdrey in his Table Alphabeticall published 150 years earlier also defined it as "fleshly," but added "pleasing the flesh." In Dictionary of the English Language Johnson defined it as "fleshy, not spiritual; lustful, lecherous, libidinous."

Fenning defines connive as "to wink at." Cawdrey defines conuiuence (connivance) as "sufferance, or winking at" and Johnson defines it as "to wink; to pretend blindness or ignorance, to forbear, to pass uncensured." Fenning's definition completely omits the implication that one closes one's eyes in order to permit something illegal, harmful, underhanded or deficient to happen. Might someone consulting Fenning be justified in writing "That cad connives my sister every time he sees her!"? In later editions he defines connive as "to wink at a fault" which may or may not be an improvement. Fenning defines connivance as "a winking at" and nictation as "a winking with the eye" (why "with the eye"?). In the Preface Fenning writes: "In fine, if upon the Whole it [the book] appears to be useful for Children, & more serviceable to adult Persons, than Spelling-Books in general, that is enough to make every candid Reader wink at a few Imperfections." So we should "connive his book"?

Because there are many tables, it is not be easy to look up the spellings or definitions of words in The Universal Spelling-Book. When you find a word, you can't be sure that its definition is accurate. This is the book that Jinny uses to help her write letters.

Jinny the Carrier

Israel Zangwill's Jinny the Carrier is set in Bradmarsh, a village in Essex, England. The time is 1851. The central conflict involves Jinny Boldero and Will Flynt.

Jinny Boldero, an orphan, was raised by her grandfather Daniel Quarles who is a carrier: he takes orders for goods from people in the area, obtains them and then delivers them in his horse-drawn cart. Jinny grew up riding with her grandfather and as he aged she assumed more and more of the work. Now he remains at home and she is "Jinny, the carrier." However, her grandfather still expects her to do all "the multiform labour of house and land, of cooking and bread-baking and goat-milking and scrubbing and washing" (71).

Because she gradually took over the business, everyone accepts Jinny as the local carrier even though it is traditionally a man's job -- everyone except Will Flynt who has been in Canada seeking his fortune. When he returns he is shocked to see her riding the cart alone: "A respectable girl like that -- why, what was the world coming to? Sent gadding about the country like a trollop, perched up horsily behind a carter's whip -- this was what little Jinny had been allowed to grow up into!" (129).

Will tells Jinny that women are unfit for and should not attempt to do men's work. Jinny does not see herself as a feminist (or "Bloomerite") but as a simple "busy toiler." She does not try to prove that she is as good as a man. However, she is as good a carrier as her grandfather was and she is very offended by Will's words and attitude. Will and Jinny were friends when they were younger but now there is ill-will between them.

man sitting at table pondering

She carries a horn which she uses to announce her arrival. During one of their arguments Will boasts that he could learn to blow her horn in an hour. Jinny says that she will get him his own horn to prove he can't learn to play it in a month. Later, Will tries to write her a note saying that he doesn't want a horn or anything else from a woman who does men's work.

During the following weeks they exchange several letters. Both Will and Jinny are proud people; both want to write as correctly as possible; neither wants to appear uneducated. At the time most people did not own dictionaries which were expensive and for which they had little need. However, they might possess some sort of a primer used during their school days. Jinny has a copy of Daniel Fenning's Universal Spelling-Book to consult. Unfortunately, Will has only the family Bible.3

[H]e could not satisfy himself as to the phraseology of this note, being, as he had truly pleaded, no great shakes at letter-writing. ... There was not even one of those word-books he had seen scholarly people use to ensure the spelling, and one must not unnecessarily afford material to a minx who — having obviously to do with bills and accounts — might conceivably be literate. ...

The only book at Frog Farm being his mother's Bible, he tried to secure accuracy by limiting himself to its words. But its vocabulary seemed strangely lacking. He had decided, for example, to begin with "Maddam. ... But did it really have two "d's"? And to his amazement and anguish neither "Maddam" nor "Madam" was to be discovered from Genesis to Revelation. Adam, the nearest analogue, who came in his reference volume with welcome promptitude, even precipitateness, had, he found, only one "d," but was he a sure guide to the orthography of the creature formed out of his spare rib?" ...

"Mr. William Flynt presents his complements" was another promising start ... but alas! — marvel on marvel — there did not appear to be a single "complement," whether in the Old Testament or the New. ...

"The Epistles of James" suddenly caught his eye. Ah, here was a complete guide to letter-writing, he felt hopefully; what was good enough for James would do for William. But when written out, "William, the son of Caleb, of Frog Farm, to Jinny Quarles of Blackwater Hall, Little Bradmarsh, greeting" did not seem quite the correct opening. An Epistle of John was, even more misguiding. "The Elder to the Elect or Well-Beloved!" Clearly inappropriate to the point of absurdity!

Still, with modifications. Epistles must surely be valid models. So he started writing and re-writing, wrestling and hunting and polishing. ...

After several days' gestation, many words and turns of expression having to be rejected and replaced by phrases whose spelling could be ascertained from the Bible, the letter emerged as hereunder in a pale and aqueous ink:

William Flynt to the Damsel of Blackwater Hall greeting.

This epistle doth proclaim in the name of the generations of Frog Farm that Methuselah [Jinny's horse] shall not come to pass here henceforward, inasmuch as behold here am I to purchase whatsoever is verily to be desired from Chipstone, be it candles or oil or spice or any manner of thing whatsoever, nor shall you carry forth aught hence, for lo! we will make no further covenant with you or aught that is yours. Peace be with you, as thank God it leaves me at present.

Yours truly,

William Flynt.

P.S.óLet not your horn be exalted, nor speak with a stiff neck, for surely this is not the way to find grace in the eyes of the discerning.

But even this exalted effusion did not survive the first glow of satisfaction, for although it was treasured up as too good to destroy, and did not sound unlike the language that the Brothers and Sisters held in the meeting-house, he could not remember ever seeing a letter thus couched. It was succeeded by a homelier version, in which the word "Epistle" stood out as the only connecting-link. With a composition playing now for safety, and mainly monosyllabic, it would be a poor diplomacy not to work in one high-class word, of whose spelling he was sure.

"This Epistle is to say," the new version began abruptly, "that we don't need you to call on Frydays --"

Good heavens! Even Friday was not to be found in the Bible. Pursuing this astonishing line of investigation, he realized that Sunday itself was absent from its pages. The Bible without Sunday! O incredible discoveries of the illuminated!


He woke up the next morning with the solution of dodging the mention of the day and merely relieving Jinny of the duty of "markiting" for them. He felt sure that this word could be found, remembering a text about two sparrows being sold for a farthing. But to his chagrin it was not in the "markit" that they were sold.

Frustrated, Will decides to accept the horn. He will impress her with how quickly he learns to play it and tell her to make no more deliveries to the farm. But Jinny sends him a note (under the signature of Daniel, her grandfather and owner of the business) first:

Sir, -- Mr. Quarles thanks Mr. William Flynt for his esteemed order, but regrets to inform him that a coach-horn of suitable size for a man is not to be had in Chipstone. They have not even got a little hunting-horn like mine. I will, however, superscribe to Chelmsford and get you one without fail. Trusting for your further patronage,

Yours truly,

Daniel Quarles.

N.B. -- All orders carried out — or in — with punctuality and dispatch. Goods sent off without fail to any part of Europe, America, and Australia.

P.S. -- Please inform your hond. parents that as she brought q.f. of groceries that Tuesday I shall not call again till I deliver your instrument."

... And her letter bowled him over, not only by its bland assumption that she was already established as his carrier, but by the fluency and scholarship of its style, with its incomprehensible "superscribe" and "q.f."

Little did Will know that this was the first letter Jinny had ever written to a client and "... the elegant epistle received by Will Flynt was not achieved without considerable pains:

... She had the advantage, however, of not being limited to the Bible for her vocabulary, possessing as she did an almost modern guide in the shape of an olla podrida of a Spelling-Book, whose first edition dated no further back than 1755, the year of the Lisbon Earthquake. "The Universal Spelling-Book" had originally belonged to the "owler," [a member of a "howling" religious sect] and it was from the almost limitless resources of this quaint reservoir that, with a pardonable desire not to be outshone by her much-travelled neighbour, she culled both the "superscribe" defined as "to write over" and the q.f. (given in the "List of Abbreviations" as standing for the Latin of "a sufficient quantity"), except that she misread the long "s" for an "f." The immaculate spelling was, however, no mean feat, for the book's vocabulary was very incomplete and devoid of order, so that she had almost as much steeplechasing to do as her rival letter-writer. Moreover, she must fain study whole columns of traps for the unwary, where the terms of her own occupation appeared with disconcerting frequency. If there was not in the letter any necessity for distinguishing between "glutinous" and "gluttonous," "rheum" and "Rome," or any risk of confusing a "widow" with a "relic," still "seller," "fare," "due"— any of which she might have needed — all had their dangerous doubles, and she did not write "call" without carefully discriminating it from "Cawl, of a Wig or Bowels." ...

The recipient of this impressive communication was staggered by the strides in female education made since his boyhood. He betook himself at once — to his mother's joy — to the Bible, like a Cromwell before a great battle. ...

Will lost the first skirmish but the epistolary war with Jinny continued through several more letters.


governess with a group of little girls

As with most girls of the time Jinny's education was limited but it was adequate enough to enable her to conduct her carrier business. She never writes letters and has never read any books other than the Bible and a hymn book. Jinny uses The Universal Spelling-Book to verify spellings in her letters to Will who is a "world traveller" (he spent a few years in Canada and a few days in London). She also uses it to check definitions so as not to use words incorrectly and as a thesaurus so as to raise the level of her diction which she knows is provincial. As with many users of dictionaries and thesauruses she sometimes takes the definitions literally and assumes that synonyms have precisely the same meanings.

While using the book Jinny notices that "[e]verything seemed to be masculine, from God downwards"; for example, "[a] good child will Love God and he will put his whole trust in Him"; "[i]f the young learner has learnt to read these lessons pretty perfectly let him go over them once more." A virtuous "woman" does appear once, but she is only to be "a crown for her husband." Other references to "woman" appear in the definitions of harlot, Mary, whore, gossip, spinster, virago and prude. Nevertheless, Jinny slogs her way through the book looking up the spellings and definitions.

graphic of parrot on pile of books titled Female Education

Since she has had little schooling, she does not feel qualified to challenge Fenning's definitions, but some of them don't seem quite right. She finds that a widower is defined as "a man who has buried his wife." She thought a widower was a man whose wife had died but now she is not sure; what if someone other than the husband buries the wife and what if a man loses his wife at sea and is unable to bury her?

Above we saw that Jinny is unable to obtain a horn locally and has to get one from Chelmsford, a town farther away. She writes to Will: "I will, however, superscribe to Chelmsford and get you one without fail." Fenning defines superscribe as "to write over" which could mean "to write again (rewrite)," "to cover text already on the page with new writing," or "to write above" (which is how Cawdrey defines it) or "to write upon the top or outside" (which is how Johnson defines it). Rather than "again" or "above" or "on top of" Jinny thinks "over" refers to crossing a space (across) as in "I'm going over to Bob's house"; therefore, she uses superscribe to mean that she will "send a letter over to Chelmsford."

This might seem like a silly mistake but look at how Fenning uses "over" in other definitions. Where superscribe means "to write over," a transcription is "a writing over again" and a perusal is "a reading over." And then there is surplus which is defined as "over and above" and superadd which is "to add over and above."

The Universal Spelling-Book was not an obscure work; it was a popular "textbook" used for over 100 years. Given its weaknesses, it's a wonder that Jinny is able to compose her letters as well as she does.4

We should appreciate our easy access to quality dictionaries and thesauruses.

See also

Israel Zangwill

Drudges Two and Dictionaries

Roget's Tree and Thesauruses

Absey Zed and ABC-Books


Note: None of the graphics in this essay are from Jinny the Carrier which has no illustrations. You can click on two of them to see them enlarged.

1All quotations are from Israel Zangwill, Jinny the Carrier (London: William Heinemann, 1919).

2Obviously, Daniel Fenning couldn't have made changes to The Universal Spelling-Book after he died in 1767, but we refer to Fenning as the author and editor of all editions.

3Of course, Jinny is a fictional character and did not really use The Universal Spelling-Book to write the letters to Will. Zangwill has constructed a character and shows us how she might have used the book and what she might have written. This is also true of Will. It seems to us that he exaggerates Will's credulousness but his depiction of Jinny seems quite believable. The long excerpts are from pages 164-172.

4In the Preface Fenning uses the common ploy of anticipating and then dismissing criticism: "And as for whimsical and censorious Critics, for such there ever will be, whose whole Search and Labour is to carp and find fault upon the least occasion, and very often without Reason at all, I shall not trouble myself about, but leave to them for their Trouble the pleasure of their own Thoughts..."