Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Noah Webster at 250: A Visionary or a Crackpot?

On the occasion of Noah Webster's 250th birthday, Dennis Baron assesses the legacy of the groundbreaking American lexicographer. Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language.

Noah Webster, America's first language patriot, was born Oct. 16, 1758. He turns 250 today.

A lawyer and schoolmaster who went to Yale and fought in the Revolutionary War, Webster bought into the Enlightenment view that connected language with nation, and he urged the newly-independent America to adopt its own language, a Federal English that was independent from the speech of its former masters.

Calling for a linguistic revolution to complement the recent political one, Webster wrote, "A national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national." And he urged, "NOW is the time, and this the country, in which we may expect changes favorable to language . . . . Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government."

Nationalizing language was in the wind at the time, and although Webster insisted that American English was already so distinct from its Old World roots as to constitute an entirely different language, his ideas were actually on the moderate side. Some extremists wanted to replace English with Hebrew, thought at the time to have been the world's first language (after all, it was spoken in the Garden of Eden); or Greek, the language of Athens, the first democracy (democratic as long as you were a free, property-owning, adult male); or even French, the language of pure rationality (at least that's what the French always claimed). 

But changing language proved more daunting than changing government, and one founder, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, reportedly quipped that it would be "more convenient" for Americans to keep English for themselves and make the British speak Greek. (Oddly enough, no one suggested that German replace English: despite the myth that German failed to become America's official language by only one vote, that never happened. Never. No one mentioned Spanish either: even in the 1780s, Americans didn't consider it very useful.)

Webster merged his linguistic patriotism with his need to make a living. Arguing that a newly-independent America shouldn't import its schoolbooks from England, he began printing domestic spellers and grammars, lobbying Congress to give his textbooks a federal seal of approval. Webster apparently failed to back up these requests with under-the-table campaign contributions, but even without a Congressional endorsement, his blue-backed spellers managed to become staples in America's classrooms for decades.

Today Webster is better known for his dictionaries than his spelling books. He published his first short dictionary in 1806, and in 1828 he brought out the 2-volume American Dictionary of the English Language. But Webster never forgot about spelling, and his dictionaries were never short of new ways to spell.

Although his ideas about the one best way to spell changed over time, Webster's American spelling generally meant dropping some final e's and making English orthography a little more phonetic. He wrote ax instead of axe, gray for grey, and plow, not plough. He also favored what eventually became an American preference for -er instead of the British -re; and center and honor instead of centre and honour. Even so, Americans still seem divided over theater and theatre, and they occasionally prefer to patrionize an upscale shopping centre. Webster successfully bet on  jail, mask, public and traveled instead of the British gaol, masque, publick, and travelled, and American dictionaries use those forms today.

But not all of Webster's reforms panned out. He justified deef, not deaf, because deef is how his fellow New Englanders said the word. Webster also struck out with bridegoom for bridegroom, despite his explanation that the second element of the word came not from someone who sees to the horses, but from the Old English guma, meaning 'man.'

Those oddities, plus his insistence at one time or another on ake, soop, sley, spunge, tung, cloke, determin, and wimmen, convinced many readers that Webster's view of standard English was too eccentric, and many of them cast their lot with the more conservative dictionaries of Joseph Emerson Worcester.

Sensing that a declaration of English independence had proved a non-starter, and discovering that his American dictionary of English was actually climbing the charts in London, Webster suddenly found British pounds as desirable as American dollars; declared that there were no significant differences between British and American English; and while he didn't go so far as to characterize the United States and England as two great nations separated by a common language, he did insist that the status quo was really for the best: "It is desirable that the language on both sides of the Atlantic should remain the same."

Webster was wrong about that as well: British and American English have drifted far enough apart to require separate American and British versions of the Harry Potter books, or to cause the occasional misunderstanding, for example when an American tries wading through the dialect of "All Creatures Great and Small" or a visiting Liverpudlian asks, "Do you have a rubber?" followed by, "Shall I knock you up in the morning?" And although English has indeed become a global language, as Webster's contemporary, John Adams, predicted that it would, the varieties of English around the world are different enough to be called, not English, but Englishes.

Even so, it wasn't just with occasionally crackpot spellings and with patriotic zeal that Noah Webster made his mark on English: despite the fact that no dictionary records this meaning, Webster has today become a synonym for dictionary.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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