The comedy variety show “Laugh-In” in the late 1960s and early 1970s popularized the catchphrase “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!” The show featured rapid-fire skits and one-liners, and the F&W line, used as a snappy rejoinder for comedic effect, referred to the scholarly dictionary that was a monumental work of lexicography and anything but comical.
When F&W published its first dictionary in 1893, “A Standard Dictionary of the English Language” (SD hereafter), few choices existed in the dictionary market. The G. & C. Merriam Co. had published the latest lexical descendant of Noah Webster’s original 1828 work in 1890, and the six-volume “Century Dictionary” had been published from 1889 to 1891. England had “Chambers’s English Dictionary” and the Oxford English Dictionary,” the latter being published in parts, the first volume containing a-ant and released in 1884.
Isaac Funk, the first half of F&W, came to dictionary making in a bit of a roundabout way. He was born in 1839 and studied for the Lutheran ministry in Springfield, Ohio, and he was a pastor for 11 years in Indiana, Ohio and New York, from 1861-72. He was editor of “The Christian Radical” in Pittsburgh and set up a printing house in New York City in 1876, joined in 1877 by Adam Willis Wagnalls, the second part of F&W. They incorporated F&W in 1890, which at first published low-cost editions of reference books and general interest books. Work on the SD began in 1890, with Funk directing a team of 740 editors, specialists and readers. F&W advertised the SD on a large scale, running full-page ads in 200 newspapers in 32 states on the same day at a cost of $45,000.
The F&W staff based the massive two-volume SD on four principles: definitions ordered according to the latest usage, etymologies placed after definitions rather than before, one alphabetical list for all entries rather than separating categories such as biography and geography, and lowercase initial letters for all entry titles except proper nouns. Funk believed in detailed phonetic spellings and simplified spellings, and that first edition includes a lengthy essay on spelling reform, which was promoted in the last quarter of the 19th century by the American Philological Association. Examples are abuv for above, lafter for laughter, and cach for catch. A subscription edition was published in 1908 and boasted an ornate calligraphic title page bearing the owner’s name and Funk’s John Hancock.
After Funk died in 1912, his brother Benjamin Franklin Funk and later his nephew Charles Earle Funk continued his work, overseeing production of the SD series, abridgements, and school and pocket editions. F&W later acquired the rights to dictionaries made by British publisher Cassell and consolidated with Thomas Y. Crowell, which became part of Harper & Row. That firm was sold in 1988 to Field Publications of Chicago.
The abridged editions were variously called “The Practical Standard Dictionary,” the “New Practical Standard Dictionary,” and the College Standard Dictionary.” The SD and the PSD were used in Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana sets in the 1950s and 1960s — and possibly in other decades, but those are the years I know of — and as part of “The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary” in the 1960s. F&W also published dictionaries of synonyms and antonyms by James C. Fernald starting in 1896.
The abridged editions contained (relatively) fewer words but possessed the same masterly approach to language as the SD. The “New Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language” copyright 1946 and 1949, was edited by Charles Earle Funk and totals 1,564 pages, an impressive work in its own right. The opening essay, “The Plan Of This Dictionary,” states that its aim is “the greatest possible simplicity — a simplicity which, with no sacrifice in accuracy or adequacy of statement, would provide essential information quickly and clearly.” It fits easily on a desk and handily in the hand, and although abridged it offers a wealth of information and many obscure terms, obscure being relative of course to one’s education, career and inclinations, such as rhenium, a metallic chemical element of the manganese group, symbol Re; the Three Sorrows of Storytelling, three stories in the Ulster cycle of legend and romance; and doodlesack, a synonym for bagpipe. So look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.