Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – more adventures in dictionaries

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

My copy of Funk & Wagnalls is a 1969 edition.

In 1875 Isaac Kaufmann Funk started a publishing company. Two years later one of his friends from University, Adam Willis Wagnalls, joined the firm as a partner and they renamed the business Funk & Wagnalls Company. For the next 13 years they published mostly religious books, but switched to reference after the success of their The Standard Dictionary of English in 1894. This eventually led in 1912 to the publishing Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia.

Isaac Funk did not like the conventions of other dictionaries at the time, espousing his editorial philosophy in four principles:

  • the definitions should be ordered according to current usage, rather than historical meaning
  • etymologies (word origin and/or derivation) should come after the definition, rather than before
  • there should be one alphabetic list of all words, rather than the book being divided into separate sections of geographical, mythical, biblical, and biographical terms
  • all entries that aren’t proper nouns should be published in all lowercase

Funk also had a passion for accurate phonetics.

They published an updated and expanded two-volume version of the dictionary, called the New Standard Unabridged Dictionary in 1913, which they continued to update with new editions until 1943. The Funk and Wagnalls Student’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1920, then Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary (another two-volume set) from 1946. Not to mention various specialty dictionaries.

They became a household name (as it were) when in 1953, in a deal with Unicorn Press, the encyclopedias started being sold in grocery stores. Not the entire set at once, mind you. No, each week a new volume became available. Volume one sold for 99-cents and subsequent volumes where $2.99 a piece. If you remember to go to your local supermarket every week, in just four or five months you could have the entire encyclopedia. The encyclopedias continued to be sold that way until some time in the 1970s.

But what really put Funk & Wagnalls on the pop culture map were some kings of television comedy in the 1960s. Johnny Carson appears to have been the first person, on his nightly Tonight Show to occassionally use the name of either the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia or dictionary in various jokes where he would allude to the f-word or other sexual matters without getting in trouble with the network censors. But things really took off when it became a running gag on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The catch phrase, “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls” was a running joke, as well as other references to the publisher’s awkward to pronounce name to allude to sexual topics.

There is also the much repeated story the Jerry Garcia got the idea to rename his band, The Warlocks, as the Grateful Dead, because he found the phrase while thumbing through a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary while smoking dope with a bunch of friends. For a long time Garcia’s story was considered a misremembering, as no one could find an entry for grateful dead in the editions of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries. Finally, someone found a copy of The Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition whose editorial board had included the chief editor of the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. The 1955 Britannica World Language edition included a number of terms from folklore and mythology that don’t appear in any other edition of Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionaries.

I think I first saw the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia during one of the grocery store promotions, though I also remember the two-volume dictionary set being owned by my paternal grandparents. Funk & Wagnalls never became as famous (nor was considered as definitive) as the Merriam-Websters or Oxford dictionaries, but they were good reference books. And the idea first popularlized by Isaac Funk that the dictionary should focus first on current usage, was eventually adopted by more famous dictionaries. That isn’t a bad legacy.

And if you don’t know what I mean by legacy, well, you can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls – more adventures in dictionaries”

  1. SickChristine says :

    We had the set. Bought a volume here and there at the grocery store. I have very vivid memories of this because I was a dorky kid that would leaf through the encyclopedias in my spare time.

    • fontfolly says :

      My parents didn’t own an encyclopedia set until just before I started middle school. But I loved laying on the floor at my grandparents’ place reading the encyclopedia. I also spent a lot of time at the school library reading the dictionary or encyclopedias.

      So I was that dorky kid, too!

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