The shrine room adjacent to the Language Lounge is small and accommodates only a modest devotional area, but the Loungeurs compensate in ardor for what we may lack in facilities: hardly a day goes by that we do not advert to our ancestors in spirit, who are depicted in images in this sanctum. Front and center amid the coterie of revered ones is Mr. Noah Webster. This year, 2006, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and we cannot let the bicentenary pass with noting the remarkable achievements of this man who, more than any other early American, influenced the direction and force of American English. By doing that, he had a great influence on the way that English looks to people around the world who read, write, study, and speak it today. We beg the indulgence of our readers abroad for this small look backward.

A few glances into the Visual Thesaurus gives us some idea of what modern English owes to this fellow. Have a look at hickory, opossum, skunk, or succotash. These words are all seamlessly integrated into the fabric of modern English today. Some of them have even sprouted meanings and senses distinct from their beginnings. Historically, however, they have two things in common: 1) they are all loanwords from Native American languages, and 2) they all became official English for the first time in Webster's 1806 dictionary.

You would expect that the premier lexicographer in a new country, as the US then was, to note the emergence of words like these that arose from local circumstances, but Noah's ear to the ground was fine-tuned for other usages as well: his 1806 work defines many English words for the first time in a dictionary, even though they had been in general or dialectal circulation for decades, or in some cases, even centuries. Spry, for example, had been noted in English and Scottish dialects before, but did not appear in any dictionary. Emphasize, a back-formation from the much earlier emphasis, appears for the first time in the 1806 dictionary, and has no earlier citations than this in the OED. Copyrighted as a verb-derived adjective is also a first-time Websterism, and somewhat ironically so: during his lifetime Webster forfeited a considerable income stream because of lax copyright laws, and the many dictionaries in print today that use his name with no legitimate claim to it do so because his name and work were not adequately protected by copyright and trademark.

Webster's achievements as a lexicographer are secured by his work which lives on in the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries published today. His much greater influence on English, however, is evident to every person who reads or writes American English - or, perhaps, who struggles with the orthography of intermediate dialects like Canadian and Australian: Webster is primarily responsible for the spelling reforms in American English that for most people distinguish it from British English. This is why in the VT, which accommodates all main spelling variants in English, you will always see colour lurking along side color, instal hanging out with install, jewellery with jewelry, licence with license, and meagre with meager. In fact Noah Webster was far more radical in his aims for English spelling reform than is suggested by the differences that exist between British and American today: if he'd gotten his way, we would write hav instead of have, tung instead of tongue, and spunge instead of sponge. Sensible guy, huh? Though nothing in his life suggests that Webster had any feminist leanings, we can give him a modest protofeminist credential for having proposed that women be spelled wimmen: the way, after all, that everyone pronounces it, and the way that was at one time proposed by some feminists as a way of distancing the word from its etymological connection with "womb-man."

Like many others whose works do follow them so admirably, Noah Webster was a visionary. Many accounts of his life depict him as a cranky fellow and some of his writings seem unusually critical, especially of British English and its adherents' claims to its superiority. It's likely that he simply got exasperated from people not listening to him! Consider his rather prescient, turn-of-the-19th century statement:

"In each of the countries peopled by Englishmen, a distinct dialect of the language will gradually be formed; the principal of which will be that of the United States. In 50 years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language, and in 130 years, by more people than any other language on the globe, not excepting the Chinese."

Few of his contemporaries would have credited this statement, but it has proven largely true: American English is the dominant variety of the language in the world today; and English, largely influenced by the American dialect, is in fact spoken by more people in the world today than Chinese - at least during the hours when most of the Chinese are sleeping, and before very long, probably even while they're awake.

After the appearance of the 1806 dictionary, Webster devoted a good part of the rest of his life to writing the work that made his name the imprimatur for dictionaries in the United States: An American Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1828. This dictionary, which still has an avid following (see below), set the standard for scholarship and precision in English lexicography at the time; a remarkable number of Webster's definitions remain quite usable today.

H.L. Mencken's monumental work The American Language is the source of the quote in this month's Language Lounge blurb. An edition of it is available online; here's are a couple of links to the chapter on spelling (click the "next" button to read on). From these pages you can also link upwards to the whole of Mencken's work (which is highly recommended).

http://www.bartleby.com/185/31.html (beginning of the spelling chapter)
http://www.bartleby.com/185/32.html (discussion on the influence of Webster)

Webster's 1828 dictionary, as noted, still enjoys an avid following today, primarily because of its Christian worldview and its wealth of Biblical quotations. It is searchable and browsable online in a fully concordanced version at: http://www.cbtministries.org/resources/webster1828.htm

Finally, you can read about Merriam-Webster's bicentenary (or perhaps you say bicentennial) celebration of the 1806 dictionary at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/webster-reform.htm


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 1st 2006, 2:53 AM
Comment by: terry D.
Ah yes, we have so much to thank the Murkins for their version of the english language.
And what do we have to thank?
Cultural imperialism. Television, movies and food.
Who would have thought our kids would regard small slices of potato as 'fries' not chips - as we had for generations.
Other reasons to be thankful: 'I'm done', 'Mayo', 'Stick shift', 'Do the math', their pronounciation of the work buoy - to any englishspeaker - 'boy' - but 'booee' to an american and so on ad nauseum.
All of which would not be so bad except when you visit their country unless you speak with an affected American accent they have no idea what you're saying.
Unfortunately our lovely old Australian sayings probably won't last another generation. They will be obliterated by American-isms.
Shame really - it's what makes Australians unique.
Friday September 1st 2006, 5:32 AM
Comment by: Juan C.
I lived 6 years in Australia. Back to North America, I still find easier to understand North American English phonetics. I wonder if that is because of the different use of the "Schwa" sound. After living "down under" I remain intrigued (and fascinated) by the characteristics of Australian and New Zealand English. I would like to see some articles about it. Thanks
J Caldera
Friday September 1st 2006, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
As an Englishman, I can only marvel at the facility with which the United States of America has embraced the concepts both of cultural and of military imperialism, for Europeans essentially a legacy of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Webster's dictionary may well have been intended as a political polemic in his time. Certainly reports of his anti-British views support that notion. Etymology, for example, does not support the variant 'color'- see the French 'couleur'. 'Culler' would seem to fit the English sound more precisely.
Different for the sake of difference, that's Noah Webster.
Friday September 1st 2006, 7:49 AM
Comment by: morgan E.

a forefinger moves
across a page
drawing my eyes
as it pauses.
musty odors of old
infuse me with the richness
of a single word.
thank you, Noah
Friday September 1st 2006, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Agatha M.
I have struggled too many new vocobularies, few days later, it overwhelmed my memory. Please help me how to do.
Please reply me as soon as possible.
Friday September 1st 2006, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Tim C.
We are indeed lucky to have had a Webster to invent American English, but thank goodness he wasn't able to get all his modernizations accepted -- for example, "wimmen" is a horror.

But I have one complaint: Why do you use a sans serif typeface? The first thing I do when I receive an article like that above is to have it converted to Times Roman, which is much easier to read and comprehend.
Friday September 1st 2006, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Earl F.
Very interesting
Friday September 1st 2006, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Anthony H.
Is there a comparable "compendium" of Australian expressions? I am always struck by the vividness and color of colloquial Australian, if not by the accent - which is produced, I understand, by starting with Cockney, screwing up your eyes against the sun and keeping your lips as close together as possible against the flies...
Friday September 1st 2006, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Joan L.
Hi
I did an etomological study of the archaic meansings (of power words) vs. todays meanings-
Quite revealing how the language has been tamed as the corporate machine has replaced our soul connection to earth and to -in many cases- ourselves
Friday September 1st 2006, 10:59 AM
Comment by: Kevin M.
I find it interesting to note resentment and more than a hint of anger over whose choice of words get to be used. And of course Webster definitely had his share of it. As for me, I understand that language is a collection of many peoples influence. I prefer to go with the flow and not get angry about whose word wins out. Life and language are dynamic. I just enjoy seeing it, life, in action, even in the very words we choose to express ourselves. Viva la, or is it the, difference?
Friday September 1st 2006, 11:23 AM
Comment by: Jim T. B.
The attributing men (as Noah Webster)of this great nation America. Have blessed us all within the coterie of values and sound leadership. To these our "hats off" and heart felt gratitude for the great work of such.
Friday September 1st 2006, 6:02 PM
Comment by: wilf W.
Since,as you say,American English may be the most frequently used language on earth (while China sleeps),
I am hoping for the birth of the next Noah to lead us into an age where english spelling becomes fully phonetic and words are spelled according to their sound in pronunciation,and not according to tradition or conventionality.
Saturday September 2nd 2006, 1:07 AM
Comment by: Steven S.
Thank you Webster for making communication development your priority.
Saturday September 2nd 2006, 2:59 AM
Comment by: Tim C.
Noah definitely deserves our gratitude for codifying the American language. But I must quickly add, as a translator (born in the USA but living in Europe), I find that most of my corporate clients prefer translations into British English rather than American. This is not because they consider American English as inferior to British, but simply because the European corporate circles mainly use BE among themselves.
After all, does it really make a difference which variety of English is used as long as it is mutually understood by people?
Sunday September 3rd 2006, 6:30 AM
Comment by: Luanne A.
When I was a young Canadian in public school, our grammar teachers had a DEVILISH time to help us to hold on to our "Canadian" spellings, as most of our textbook printings were done in the US. There has always been a tremendous cultural fight to keep the Oxford Dictionary as our standard, as opposed to the Webster's. I don't know if there is even a concern over this in Canadian schools any longer. We seem to have succumbed without a fight to the Microsoft spell-checker for US English. Not at all like what happened at the War of 1812, where we retained our distinctive borders!
Sunday September 3rd 2006, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Albert T.
I can't help but note that quite a few comments are from down-under. Interesting how many Ozzie subscribers there are here!

As an American expat masquerading as a Sydneysider of 2+ years, I've become somewhat accustomed to Ozzie English but I have to say some things annoys me to no end, one in particular is pointed out in the article above: jewellery. Something about that word just makes me laugh. I don't know why. And please don't feed me to the kangaroos, but it's just such a silly word.

That being said, I'd never write Pearl Harbour nor will I ever write Sydney Harbor. In fact, I've come to regard some "o without u" words as being quite ... tactless. Thought I still can't bring myself to write "colour" or any other similar words.
Tuesday September 5th 2006, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Bill G.
Attractive as the idea of phonetic spelling is, it does not work because accents vary over time and from place to place. Even in the US, where people are not supposed to have regional accents, it is reasonably easy even for a foreigner to place people. How does a Texan pronounce colour/color? Culla? Other than the Scots, how many people pronounce the r however they spell the word?

Spellings vary over time, so I'm not sure why we should be as hung up as we are.

The two great things about English is how we can import new words whenever or where ever we find them and its tendency to simplify spelling and grammar.

Monday September 11th 2006, 6:23 PM
Comment by: Alice M.
If you want to see phonetic spelling across accents(strictly 'Murican) , peruse Random House's "Bad Speller's Dictionary". I can loan it to friends from Boston to N'Orleans and they can find the word they're looking for.
It's my most valuable resource, and also good for a smile on a bad day.
Saturday March 29th 2008, 8:56 AM
Comment by: ricardo S.
I am not very well read but I like to learn and observe much, some of it is not worth it. But thank you Morgan Earl for your poetic comment, the idea of finding meaning in a single word is still fantastic to me. The incredibly long history and the landing that America is makes the language complete if not perfect, but perfectly thorough. I don't anticipate much changes other than the techno-clarifications of mostly mechanical things in society which would cover alot of ground. But the method of communication of man's meaning is already here, and it DOES help us function.

pardon my indulgence:

i once saw a mark while walking in the park
and realizing occasionally being in the dark
i no longer had anxiety to impart

clarity is with confidence
and honesty is with friends, and humanity...
Sunday May 3rd 2009, 5:31 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
I chanced to revisit this thread recently. My additional comment is that Noah Webster did not 'codify' the American language, if by 'codify' we mean set it out as he found it. Rather did he aim to dictate a new style for the New World.

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