What?! As I was researching the last post on the Thanksgiving Day 1904 Carrie Reinholtz murder/suicide controversy, I came upon a quotation in a newspaper that jumped out at me. That person commented that if Carrie had managed to commit suicide in such an incredible manner, it should go down in history as the most “wonderful” suicide ever. Obviously “wonderful” must have meant something different back then!
According to the modern-day Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “wonderful” means 1) exciting wonder and 2) unusually good. To explain the former meaning, which I assumed had a negative connotation, I referred to an online PDF created by Rutgers University Professor Jack Lynch: A Guide to Eighteenth-Century English Vocabulary, where, on page 21, I found an 18th-century definition for “wonderful”: Amazing, unusual, noteworthy, but not necessarily good. Professor Lynch’s 21-page “nuts-and-bots” guide may help you quickly decipher some of the past usages of words that you come across. That definition of “wonderful” had obviously lingered through the 19th century and at least until 1904, when Carrie’s suicide was so described. When did the meaning take a turn away from the negative?
To figure something like that out, one can take advantage of numerous online old 19th- and early 20th-century dictionaries:
- An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) – WONDERFUL – Adapted to excite wonder or admiration ; exciting surprise ; strange ; astonishing.
- Webster’s Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1886) – WONDERFUL – Adapted to excite wonder or admiration ; exciting surprise ; strange ; astonishing.
- A Modern Dictionary of the English Language (1911) – WONDERFUL – Causing wonder ; strange.
- Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (1919) – WONDERFUL – Marvellous, surprising, exceeding what was expected, remarkable, admirable.
So between 1911 and 1919, the definition took a turn, at least it appears that way to me. (English language experts, please feel free to opine for I am no scholar, by any means!)
Heading back to the 18th century & early 19th century, more excellent online resources are available (and these are all recommended by Professor Lynch in his aforementioned guide):
- Edward Phillip’s The New World of English Words (1720)
- Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
- Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)
In closing, I’ll mention the most vast resource I have come across when it comes to English and any other language for that matter: Lexigolos, a website belonging to Xavier Negre of Marseille, Provence, France. Lexigolos’ tagline is “words and wonders of the world”.
Here, you’ll find lots of resources for Late Modern English. And, if you want to move beyond that topic, Lexigolos can help you run wild through the past and present of over 100 of the world’s languages. Just check out their home page and click away.
Those wanting to pony up some dough can purchase or subscribe online to the Oxford English Dictionary (free 30-day trial offered; subscriptions for $29.95/month or $295/year) and/or Merriam Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (free 14-day trial offered; subscriptions for $4.95/month or $29.95/year).
With that, I shall wish you Godspeed! Feel free to share any great online resources you’ve come across!