Noah Webster? Samuel Johnson? Chauncey Depew? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.
The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”
There is a rival version of this story featuring another famous dictionary creator Samuel Johnson as the philanderer. Johnson lived between 1709 and 1784; Webster lived between 1758 and 1843. I would like to know which man was the true Lothario.
Quote Investigator: Tracing an anecdote is a difficult task, but QI will make an attempt and present a snapshot of the research results. The earliest discovered instance was printed in a newspaper in 1896. The raconteur was Chauncey Depew, a famous after-dinner speaker: 1
At a recent dinner in New York a new story was sprung by Chauncey M. Depew. Speaking of the importance of humor, Mr. Depew declared that Noah Webster, though a lexicographer, was humorist. “His wife,” Chauncey went on to say, “caught him one day kissing the cook.
“‘Noah,’ she exclaimed, ‘I’m surprised!’
“‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘you have not studied carefully our glorious language. It is I who am surprised. You are astounded.'”
In 1903 “Everybody’s Magazine” published a curious version of the story in which Webster’s transgression was not carnal. Instead, his wife was unhappy with the informality of his attire. This bowdlerized version was fit for everybody as suggested by the magazine name: 2
A story is told of Noah Webster, the dictionary maker, who one day was found by his wife at dinner without coat or collar while entertaining two guests. His wife’s sudden and unexpected return and entrance to the room brought those present to their feet. “I am surprised,” said Mrs. Webster. And Mr. Webster rejoined, “My dear, I am surprised—you are astonished.”
The originator of this joke was not a linguist, and its construction was based on an artifice. The rationale of the humorous rejoinder hinged on a sharp delineation between the meanings of words such as: surprised, astounded, and astonished. Yet the definitions given in the 1830 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary revealed overlapping denotations: 3
SURPRISE v. t. 1. To come or fall upon suddenly and unexpectedly; to take unawares. 2. To strike with wonder or astonishment. 3. To confuse; to throw the mind into disorder by something suddenly presented to the view or to the mind.
SURPRISED pp. Come upon or taken unawares; struck with something novel or unexpected.
ASTONISH v. t. To stun or strike dumb with sudden fear, terror, surprise, or wonder; to amaze; to confound with some sudden passion.
ASTONISHED pp. Amazed; confounded with fear, surprise, or admiration
ASTOUND, v. t. To astonish; to strike dumb with amazement.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1896 April 21, Daily Iowa Capital, A New One by Chauncey, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1903 September, Everybody’s Magazine, With “Everybody’s” Publishers, A Surprising Letter, Quote Page 419, Column 2, Volume 9, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1830, An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words by Noah Webster, (Abridged from the Quarto edition by the author), Entry SURPRISE: Page 813, Entry ASTONISH and ASTOUND: Page 58, Published by S. Converse, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩