14 MARCH 1958, Page 10

Webster's World

By STRIX riri" EN'SING-TON (ken-sing-tim). Subdivision (est. 1_1 pop. 1,700) of town of BERLIN.'

Read on, and you will learn that this particular Berlin is in Connecticut, and that the next entry (which precedes 'Kensington and Norwood : joint municipality, S.E. South Australia') is the equally famous London borough. This is pro- nounced with a -zing, so much more refined than those horrid Colonial -sings.

But when you have learnt this, continue to read on; for Webster's Geographical Dictionary of Names of Places with Geographical and Histori- cal Information and Pronunciations, published nine years ago in Springfield, Massachusetts, is a fascinating as well as an impressive compilation. Its aim, the preface says, is 'to provide in a single handy volume a selection of geographical proper names adequate for the needs of the general user, with full information on the spelling, syllabic division, and pronunciation of the names, and with concise geographical information about the entries and, in many cases, historical information as well.' It contains more than 40,000 place- names.

I took it up—it is a substantial work, very well produced—out of a vague, wondering kind of sympathy for geographical lexicographers. How are their prospects affected by the Hydrogen Bomb? If there is no future for places, what is the point of recording place-names? I had a vision of myself as a once-young drudge grown grey and bent in Webster's service, c?ntering, still starry-eyed, up the straight towards the win- ning post of the Revised Edition. The going was easier now. The alphabet was drying out. 'YUNNANFU : a former name of Kunming.

. . . ZAKARPATSKAYA see Carpathian Ruthenia.' I was riding with a loose rein. We were almost home.

Then, suddenly, the unexpected summons. 'All staff-members to the Mercator Hall !' We realised, with a shock, that the great presses were silent. Even the umlaut-grinder had ceased its chatter; it was as though the cicadas had died.

And there was Webster himself, leaning heavily on the model of an azimuth which his great- grandfather had carved out of a whale-bone. (We always called him Pondicherry; I can't remember why.) 'Gent'le-men,' he croaked, 'I have Bad News for you. And don't expect'—a touch of his old fierce pedantry returning—'to find it, like Ischl, Kissingen, and Kreuznach, under News. . • .'

* * But as I studied the great work these soppy visions were dispelled. My interest shifted first to the enigmatic figure for whose needs it was designed to cater. Who is this general user? What the devil does he use a geographical dictionary for?

I can see that it would prove invaluable, once or twice in a life-time, for settling arguments about how to pronounce Cirencester or whether Hongkong has a hyphen. It must often come in handy in newspaper offices; `Chernyakhovsk, where, according to last night's startling news from Moscow, Marshal Bulganin is to take up his new post as welfare officer to a vinegar dis- tillery, is of course the former East Prussian city of Insterburg. Situated on the Angerapp, a river some 90 miles in length which debouches from the Masurian lakes and forms a tributary of the possibly better-known Pregel, Chernyakhovsk, in addition to vinegar, produces sugar, stoves and tiles and has a population of 39,311—or 39,312, if the distinguished exile is to be included. Founded in the fourteenth century-1336 is the date usually given—at a point 53 miles east of Konigsberg, as Kaliningrad used to be called, it . . .' But you can see what a boon Webster is to the less dedicated type of leader-writer.

But to whom else? To the fiendish Martian in his space-ship this dictionary might prove of considerable value, for it would enable him, after landing on our planet, to establish his approxi- mate position by reference to the nearest signpost. It is true that if the signpost said 'La Libertad' he would not know for certain whether he was in Ecuador, El Salvador or the Philippines; and even if it said 'London' the poor brute would have to make up his own twisted mind whether it meant the scene of Wat Tyler's Rebellion 1381 and the Gordon Riots 1780 ('at Croydon in the S. part is the international airport') or whether he was in the vicinity of one of the other three Londons, in Kentucky, Ohio and Ontario. Be- sides, is there any reason to suppose that creatures from Outer Space will be able to read our sign- posts, let alone our dictionaries?

My private belief is that this 'general user' was a, figment in Webster's disordered mind. There is much internal evidence that Webster Jived in a world of his own. Look up Athens, for instance, and you will see what I mean.. Webster lists nine places of this name, some rich in lignite deposits, others producing (like Chernyakhovsk) stoves; but all these nine places are in the United States, and it is only when we come to a separate entry headed 'anc. A-the'nae : Gr. A-the'nai' that we catch up with what Webster rather grudgingly describes as 'cultural center of Greek kingdom.'

The fact of the matter, in my view, is that Webster was a rabid nationalist, suffering from an acute but rather subtle form of xenophobia. This caused him, first of all, to 'load' his 1,300 pages with North American place-names. A city, town or village in the United States or Canada needed a population of only 1,500 to qualify for the dictionary; the corresponding figure for Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand was 5,000, for European countries 10,000, for Russia and China 25,000. This was reasonable enough up to a point, since an editorial preface makes it clear that the book was expected to have its 'widest distribution' on the North American continent.

But within the formal and necessary frame- work of these conventions Webster's obsessive nationalism gradually took charge of the enter- prise.. Not content with ruling that identical place-names would appear in the alphabetical order of the countries to which they belonged 'except that the United States precedes all other countries,' the frantic lexicographer set out to suppress, as far as he decently could, the old, un- American place-names whose unimaginative bastardy so largely populates the map of North America.

We have seen the lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to conceal from the general user the fact that there was such a place as Athens, Greece. Let us now con- trast his methods of dealing with the cities of New York and York. New York is not entered, on the Athenian precedent, under its Red Indian or even its Dutch names. We are told, amid a wealth of other detail, that the flower of New York State is a rose and its motto 'Excelsior.'

Turn now to York. Even the most casual student of Webster will not be surprised to find that the first York is 'Estuary ab. 40 m. long, E. Virginia; formed by confluence of Pamunkey and Mattapori rivers at West Point; flows S.E. into Chesapeake Bay.' Counties in five American states are called York, so are seven towns in the United States and Canada. After describing these Webster, like a contemporary band-leader switching, as a brief concession, into olde tyme dance-tunes, gives us Eb'o-ra'cum. This, .but only on internal evidence, can be identified as the county borough of Yorkshire; its name is not mentioned under 'York.'

Under 'Oxford' there are eleven entries and under 'Cambridge' eight before the general user reaches Oxonia (a county borough) and Canta- brigia (a municipal borough). Eton and Harrow rate entries in their own right as urban districts. The latter is the 'seat of a famous school for boys, founded 1571 by John Lyon'; at the former (pop. 2,005) exists 'Eton College founded by Henry VI 1440.' There are, by contrast, eight Winchesters before we come to Venta Belgarum, where the establishment founded by William of Wykeham in 1387 is granted a pawky toe-hold as 'Winchester Coll.' Windsor, 'seat of Windsor Castle, principal [sic] residence of England's sovereigns since the time of William the Con- queror,' comes eleventh out of twelve Windsors and, being described as 'officially New Windsor,' is virtually disqualified from competing in this curious handicap (though not as decisively as High Wycombe, which appears as an obsolete name for Chepping or Chipping Wycombe).

In embarking on his prodigious task Webster had to formulate rules and stick to them. It is not for me, knowing nothing of the difficulties involved, to suggest that the rules he made were silly rules. But if, as seems possible, the general user is some form of North American sales executive, and if, as also seems possible, a slight recession obliges business men in the United States to pay more attention to the export market, I can only hope that, before pamphlets about washing machines start arriving in huge envelopes addressed to Venta Belgarum and Dubris (White cliffs of) Portus, the Postmaster-General will have acquired at least one copy of Webster's Geo- graphical Dictionary.