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The Birth of "Webster's Dictionary"

Yesterday, October 16, was National Dictionary Day, celebrated annually on the birthday of the great American lexicographer Noah Webster. Today the "Webster" name is practically synonymous with dictionaries, but how did the first "Webster's Dictionary" come to be? In this excerpt from The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall recounts the publication of Webster's Compendious Dictionary in 1806, the first dictionary to bear his name and the first to feature his "American" spelling.

About two weeks before the publication of his Compendious Dictionary, Webster launched his own publicity campaign. On January 21, 1806, under the pen name "Americus," Webster placed a front-page essay, "American Literature," in The Connecticut Herald. To garner enthusiasm for his idea that America was ready for a language of its own, Webster challenged the conventional wisdom that harped on "the inferiority of the writings of our citizens." Though America, he acknowledged, had yet to produce writers of the stature of Milton, Johnson and Pope, Britain, he stressed, had benefited from a four-century head start: "The comparison, to be just, should be instituted between the great body of respectable writers in the two countries; and in such a comparison, the writings of American citizens will not appear to a disadvantage." Looking back over the last thirty years, Webster concluded that Americans in every genre — from political theory to poetry — matched up well against their British counterparts. Webster lauded a number of American writers such as his Connecticut chums Dwight, Trumbull and Barlow, as well as Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also wrote favorably of Alexander Hamilton; now that his bitter rival was dead, Webster didn't mind praising the "style, argument, arrangement and accurate knowledge" of the author of The Federalist. Webster did, however, acknowledge one major roadblock to American literary greatness: the existence of "only three or four tolerable libraries." The net result, he asserted, was that "no American undertakes . . . any work of great magnitude. We shall never have authors of great celebrity in the literary world, till our citizens execute works on a large scale, which will be interesting to foreign literati."

Webster would be the exception. Having just finished what he called his "compend," his "convenient manual," he was now dedicating his life to his complete dictionary, which would indeed force foreigners to stop and take notice of American literary achievement.

On February 11, 1806, Americans first learned about "Webster's Dictionary." The now-familiar phrase appeared as the headline of the advertisement that Webster placed in The Connecticut Herald on publication day. The Compendious Dictionary, with its 432 large duodecimo pages, cost a dollar fifty. The book contained roughly forty thousand words. While Webster added five thousand new scientific terms from diverse fields including chemistry, mineralogy and botany, he eliminated many vulgar words found in Johnson (and Johnson Jr.) such as the irksome "foutra." The text resembled a contemporary thesaurus because most entries consisted of just one or two quick definitions. For example, he defined "author" as "one who makes or causes, a writer." As this announcement mentioned, in the back of the book Webster appended seventeen tables "for the merchant, the seaman, the classical student and the traveler." While Entick's Spelling Dictionary had featured a few addenda such as alphabetical lists of "Heathen Gods and Goddesses," "Heroes and Heroines" and the most common Christian names of men and women, this hefty supplement was largely a Websterian touch. The tables covered such diverse topics as currencies, weights and measures, demographic data, the location of post offices, historical events and inventions. The statistician, the census taker and the encyclopedist were thus all merged into the lexicographer. "These tables," Webster noted proudly, "are all new, and compiled with great labor and minute attention to correctness."

In his "compend," Webster first made his famous tweaks to British English. "In omitting u in honor and a few words of that class," he wrote in the introduction, "I have pursued a common practice in this country, authorized by the principle of uniformity and by etymology."

In his twenty-four-page, single-spaced preface, which went way over the head of most readers, Webster explained his method for revising "our present dictionaries" to arrive at "a correct knowledge of the language." Since Webster had already begun planning the sequel, this conceptual overview actually referred as much to the massive book he was about to write as to the small book he had just written. The future of the English language, Webster insisted, was to be found in its past; a generation after the Revolution, he was talking up a different version of American linguistic identity. Americans, he now believed, should be at least as British as the British — if not more so. For this reason, Webster argued, all Americans should start sounding like New Englanders: "It is . . . to be remarked that the common unadulterated pronunciation of the New England gentlemen [sic] is uniformly the pronunciation which prevailed in England anterior to Sheridan's time and which I am assured by English gentlemen is still the pronunciation of the body of the English nation." Likewise, for spelling, Webster insisted that Americans should go still further back in time — to Anglo-Saxon (a language of which Johnson had known little). Thus Webster turned the charge of "innovation" upon its head; according to his new analysis, he was rescuing his fellow Americans from the corruptions wrought by Johnson and his contemporaries.

Reprinted from The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Joshua Kendall. 

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