Defining 'Discover'

dis•cov•er . . . Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French descovrir, from Late Latin discooperire, from Latin dis- + cooperire to cover.
transitive senses 1 a : to make known or visible: EXPOSE b archaic: DISPLAY 2 a : to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time: FIND b: FIND OUT . . . synonyms DISCOVER, ASCERTAIN, DETERMINE, UNEARTH, LEARN mean to find out what one did not previously know. DISCOVER may apply to something requiring exploration or investigation or to a chance encounter; discovered the source of the river . . .

dis•cov•ery . . . 1a: the act or process of discovering b 1archaic: DISCLOSURE 2obsolete: DISPLAY c obsolete: EXPLORATION 2: something discovered . . .

To Parse the Universe

Just as the sands of the Missouri River moved, sometimes treacherously, beneath the boats, the feet, and even the beds of the Corps of Discovery, continually changing the course and face of the river, so does the fickle fabric of our language shift, sometimes insidiously, beneath our understanding.

The meanderings of a key word in the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a case in point. In 1991, on the eve of the cinquecentennial of Christopher Columbus's achievement, The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage remonstrated that "only by a strange twist of white ethnocentrism can one be considered to 'discover' a continent inhabited by millions of people."1 Political correctitude might suggest that we simply drop the word discovery from our Lewis and Clark lexicon, and just speak of the captains as explorers.2

Yet discovery is graven into the very heart of the Expedition's history. Six days after the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd on August 20, 1804, a special name of the expedition was inked into the Orderly Book: "The commanding officers have thought it proper to appoint Patrick Gass a Sergeant in the corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery [emphasis added]." It bore the ring of an official descriptive name that would satisfy the keepers of military records, but eventually it was shortened to the now commonplace, "Corps of Discovery."

Lewis's French passport attested that he was engaged in "a voyage of discovery." Sergeant Ordway wrote home before their departure from Camp Dubois that he and his comrades expected to make "Great Discoveries." On May 20, 1804, Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis and headed for St. Charles to join William Clark, and undertake "the discovery of the interior continent of North America."

Obviously, all their "discoveries" were already "known or visible" to some or all of the millions of Indians in the Northwest. So were they guilty of white ethnocentrism? Were they racists? What did the word discovery mean to Lewis, or Clark, or to their older contemporary, Noah Webster (1758-1843)?

Judging from its frequent occurrences in correspondence relating to the Expedition, discovery was in common use in Jefferson's orbit, although it didn't appear in two of the leading dictionaries of the time: Thomas Sheridan's Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1796) or Caleb Alexander's Columbian Dictionary of the English Language (1800). John Entick's popular New Spelling Dictionary (1800) listed it–"to disclose, show, find out, espy"–but it was absent from Noah Webster's first lexicon, the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, of 1806.

Done with Discovery?

Somewhere between genomes and Jupiter

The April 10, 2000, issue of Time contained a thought-provoking debate–which had been carried on via e-mail–about the concept of discovery. At odds were John Horgan, author of The End of Science, and Paul Hoffman, former editor of Discover magazine and past president of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Horgan contended that we have found all there is in the universe to discover, except for some "small-bore stuff" to be fine-tuned. Hoffman replied that "the trajectory of discoveries so far suggests . . . that supposedly unanswerable questions eventually do get answered," and the real fun is about to begin.

Horgan had the last word: "If we encounter extraterrestrial life–and especially life intelligent enough to have developed its own science–then all bets are off."

However, in his next edition, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Webster traced its etymology from the French decouvrir, and listed six shades of meaning—to uncover, disclose, reveal, espy; ("to have the first sight of"), find out, detect–with examples from Shakespeare, Milton, and the Old Testament, ending with, "Discover differs from invent. We discover what before existed, though to us unknown; we invent what did not before exist." In fact, Webster may have paraphrased that definition from a standard British book on rhetoric first published in 1783: "We invent things that are new; we discover what was before hidden."3

According to Enlightenment cosmology, the universe was orderly and complete, full of animals, minerals, plants and people, a "Great Chain of Being," and the duty and destiny of humankind was to observe it all, get to know it all. To uncover all, bring all into the light of the civilized world. To discover all.4

Especially the people. Get acquainted with them, said Jefferson. Really acquainted, echoed Benjamin Rush, M.D., who sent Lewis a list of probing questions to ask them. The result was the first intimately detailed account of the character and culture of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest, and the beginning of the science of anthropology.

The members of the Expedition–white, black, and red–were only the newest explorers in the Northwest during those years. Having recently acquired either horses or guns, or both, and with Euro-American trade goods being infused into their lifeways, many of the Indians the Corps of Discovery met were themselves discovering new means and modes of subsistence, new territories and new ways of interacting with new neighbors, and new relationships with the land and its resources.

Several generations earlier, Blackfeet Indian soldiers carrying firearms bought from Canadian traders forced Sacagawea's own people, the Northern Shoshones, out of their homes on the high plains of todoay's Montana and into the mountains. Thus, when Lewis and Clark discovered them, they had within recent generations discovered a new land for themselves, and learned how to reconcile themselves with it, becoming buffalo hunters in one season, and ¬∑gaideka'asalmon eaters–in another.

The journals of the Expedition are about the "discovery of the interior continent of North America," including all the people they could find or hear about. And in certain respects and many details, they reflect the intersections of EuroAmerican with Indian discoverers. All were, in their own respective terms, driven by the same impulses: To see, hear, touch, smell and taste. To measure and count, describe and classify. To understand. To parse the universe.5


1. Rosalie Maggio, The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to Non-Discriminatory Language (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1991), 85.

2. The noun explorer was "a title of American extraction," according to the British reviewer of Biddle's edition of Travels to the Source of the Missouri River . . . by Captains Lewis and Clarke, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, London (1815) XII:317-368.

3. Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (7th ed., 3 vols, London: A. Straha & T. Cadell, 1798), I:230. In the era of Lewis and Clark, rhetoric was the art of using language clearly and persuasively, and Blair's Lectures remained the authoritative treatise on the subject in Great Britain and the United States throughout the rest of the 19th century. The 20th Century stood rhetoric on its head, and so it is now a snarl word denoting inflated, pompous discourse.

4. See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Henry Holt, 1948; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 34-38. The larger history of Enlightenment cosmology is traced in the classic work by Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936; reprint, 1964).

5. The four stages of discovery are discussed in Albert Furtwangler, Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 3 ff.