The "Peddler" Problem
Bill Long 2/2/06
One Word in "The Night Before Christmas"
I am hung up on a little problem, and I need to write an essay about it. In short it relates to the evolution of the word peddler and the appearance of the word in Clement Clark Moore's famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("The Night Before Christmas"). I will review the historical development of the term before examining the problem in "Visit."
The word pedler or pedlar or even pedeler or pedelare or pedlere appeared in English as early as the 14th century (OED s.v.) to denote a salesman who carries goods in a pack. It seemed, however, that the 16th century "normal" spelling was pedler (Spenser and Shakespeare have this spelling), while the mid-late 17th-19th century have the spelling as pedlar (Milton, Swift, Goldsmith). But the 19th century has attestations of both spellings, pedlar and pedler, to denote this character. According to the OED, it was only in 1872 that the spelling peddler was introduced, but at first this spelling had a negative connotation--to denote a person who trades in illicit merchandise. The spelling peddler was introduced in America at that time.
Clement Clark Moore and St. Nicholas
The most famous use of the word pedler/pedlar that is still familiar to people today was in the 1822 poem, "A Visits From St. Nicholas," which we know today as "The Night Before Christmas." Almost all scholars agree that Moore wrote it, though when it was published first on December 23, 1823 on p. 3 of the Troy Sentinel, it was printed without attribution. Clark's father had been President of Columbia and great things were expected of Clement Clark Moore. Therefore, he probably couldn't imagine how this little poem he composed for his six children before Christmas in 1822 was worthy of a person of his stature or aspirations. His wife, it is said, was the one who submitted the poem for publication.*
[*This type of attitude, that one's "lesser" works or works that are "popular" are not worthy of publication or worthy of the person producing them, still persists in the American academy. Indeed, it was very common in my doctoral program at an Ivy League school in the late 1970s/early 1980s for professors to denigrate works that were written to clarify a problem for a general audience by the appellation "popular." The people who usually put down "popular" works, I noted, were of two kinds: (1) those who themselves never wrote anything or; (2) those who couldn't explain how to get to get downstairs from their office without confusing their hearers. Wanting to honor my professors, I decided not to write things that were "popular." But, I threw that out the window when I realized that this prejudice was more a function of their inabilities than of any requirement of the field. Indeed, my doctoral program did me much damage in this way.]
The Problem in a Nutshell**
[**As I study the poem and have corresponded with the world expert on it and its history, Ms. Nancy H. Marshall, I realize that most other people who want to talk about the evolution of language in the poem are concerned with "Donder and Blitzen." Everyone, it seems, wants to clarify what these two reindeer were originally called and how their names evolved over time. I don't have any quarrel with any who want to do that; it just seems that no one else is interested in the "pedlar" problem.]
But here is the issue. Ms. Marshall assures me of the following. CC Moore's original hand-written copy of the poem, composed in 1822, is lost. The four extant holograph (handwritten by Moore) copies of the poem all have the spelling "pedlar," and the copyright version, published in an anthology of his poems in 1844 (Poems) has the following, with respect to St. Nicholas:
"He looked like a pedlar just opening his pack."
Thus, pedlar it seems to be. However, we run into some problems. The 1836 version, printed in the Rural Repository (online here), has the word spelled peddler, and a December 23, 1837 version in the NY Mirror has the spelling as pedler. But Parley's Magazine from December 1838 has the spelling as pedlar.
So, what do you do with all of this? I decided to call the Troy Public Library in NY State, which is the repository of the original newspaper in which it was printed. The reference librarian assured me this morning that the original printing on Dec. 23, 1823 of the poem had the word spelled peddler. Now, we have a real problem, for it seems to suggest that we have the spelling of the word as peddler 1/2 century before the OED says we do.
If indeed the librarian told me the truth, and librarians never lie, and because of the spelling of the word as peddler also in the 1836 Rural Repository, the OED has a problem, because it says that the first attestation of peddler was in 1872 to describe a nefarious character. Well, to be fair to the OED, it doesn't actually say that the spelling peddler never appeared before that time, but the impression given by their entry is that you only have pedlar or pedler before the 20th century to describe the person who sells goods out of his pack.
Whether St. Nicholas actually was a pedlar or pedler or peddler, this little detour illustrates a fascinating problem in mid-19th century orthography, a problem that really wasn't "solved" until early in the 20th century. But this takes us further afield into the world of standardization of spelling, a fascinating topic in itself, but far beyond what I want to do now. Let's accept, then, the Dec. 23, 1823 spelling of peddler for one who sells goods out of a pack in an itinerant manner as the first attestation of that spelling in English. I will so argue--at least until someone proves me wrong.
Please go to this essay for my attempt to push back the date of the first appearance of the spelling of "peddler" beyond 1823.