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 V.17 No.13 | March 27 - April 2, 2008 

Ask the Skeptic

Eric J. Garcia

Q: Is it true there are no English words that rhyme with “orange”?

A: Bullshit! That’s what they want you to think. It is true that modern (post-1860) dictionaries contain no words that rhyme with “orange,” but that was not always the case. Welcome to a long-forgotten but scandalous period of dictionary censorship.

The issue dates back to the 1850s, when the lexicographer grandson of Noah Webster, Noah Webster III, traveled from his Hartford, Conn., home to visit Florida on holiday. As he toured the state, he was appalled to see slave labor harvesting oranges. By 1860, there were more than 60,000 slaves in Florida, comprising more than 40 percent of the state’s population. Webster was shaken to his core to think that the pure (and slightly tangy) glasses of juice he drank back home had been tainted by the exploitation of fellow humans.

Webster decided that the best way to pressure Florida into ending slavery was to hit them in the pocketbook by doing what he could to devalue their main crop: oranges. Webster, abolitionist and cunning linguist that he was, knew that words hold power and came to believe that if he could get rid of words that rhymed with “orange,” people would use the words less, think of oranges less often and thus reduce public demand for the fruit.

Webster used his position as head of the family-owned company, Webster Dictionaries, to expunge words that rhymed with “orange” from his best-selling dictionaries. Whatever modern observers may think of Webster’s motives or logic, with a few strokes of the pen he permanently deleted several words simply because they rhymed with the word “orange.” (For example, there was “poringe,” a Cajun porridge with a hint of citrus, often blended with millet and eaten by Confederate soldiers; “carrandge,” a printer’s typeface that resembled bird droppings; and “mooridje,” a boating term.)

While Webster’s actions may (or may not) have helped end slavery in the United States, it came at a terrible personal price: Scandal over Webster’s act sent shock waves through the lexicography community and actually led to his son Noah Webster IV’s untimely death in 1899 at the hands of a syphilitic Belgian prostitute hired by rival dictionary-maker George Merriam.

Webster’s dictionary work has overshadowed his abolitionist efforts, though he is considered a hero to many Black families living in the Florida panhandle. (In fact, the diminutive actor who played Webster on the '80s TV sitcom of the same name—Emmanuel Lewis—is African-American. Coincidence? I think not!) Now you know the truth.

 
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