Thinking about Noah Webster on anniversary of American dictionary

The anniversary of the publication of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was four days ago (April 14, 1828). Each year I acknowledge this historic accomplishment (check out last year’s blog ─What Noah Webster knew 185 years ago).

I’ve been reading recently about the history of dictionaries to understand where Noah Webster fits among the long list of folk who have developed “word lists,” or dictionaries. And I do mean long list.[1]

But a quick detour. Years ago, a 4-5 year old Noah (named, in part, after Noah Webster) was asking me a question I have never forgotten: “Mom, tell me all the bad words so I can know what not to say.”  I told him he already knew all the bad words he was not supposed to say. He pursued this line of thought: “No, I mean tell me ALL of them. There’s a list of them — I need to know ALL of them.” I continued to hold my line in the sand: “You already know them, Noah. You know ….” and then I proceeded to list off a few of the four-letter words I knew that he knew. He argued with some certainty, that there were others I was holding out on. Somehow the conversation thankfully moved elsewhere.

As I think back on this, my 4-5 year old already knew what a dictionary was. When we would identify words we didn’t know, I would open the dictionary (yes, a Webster’s print dictionary) and look up the word. I would point out to Noah that we needed to start the search by knowing the beginning letter of the word and then search among many words to find our word. I would read the definition out loud and he would typically remember the definition, much to my surprise.

So, 4-5 year old Noah knew that words lived somewhere in a giant book, courtesy of his name-sake, Noah Webster.

I knew when Noah asked me for a complete list of the “bad” words, that there were several of these words that were not likely in Webster’s dictionary. But it did not seem wise to list them for Noah, look them up in the dictionary, then tell him that the words were not in the dictionary because he was not supposed to use those words. It would have been a good lesson, to tell young Noah that Noah Webster thought those were bad words ─ and that’s why they were not in the dictionary. But with my son’s excellent memory, there was no doubt he was going to remember the bad words – whether in the dictionary or not ─ and he would be using them with his friends in pre-school the following days.

This side road brings me to one of the real topics at hand, what Noah Webster thought when he put together the dictionary for Americans. Clearly, he knew of words – slang words, inappropriate words[2] – that he did not put in the dictionary. Perhaps to him, cultural norms (manners?) trumped the actual use of words in the vernacular. More current dictionaries do include slang terms and offending phrases, and I personally appreciate that they do. If you’re going to speak the language, I think it all should be defined.

It’s pretty interesting that one of the motivations for publishing the Webster American Dictionary was so Americans would “have a national identity that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England.”[3]  There were, of course, other English dictionaries out there ─ but they were developed in England. Noah Webster understood that it was not good for our nation to look to England and its cultural norms for our language at that point in our nation’s history. What great insight – for nation-building. He was also motivated to address the problem of regional dialects in our new nation; i.e., there were so many regional dialects that differed so greatly that many Americans could not – literally – communicate with one another. Indeed, how can a nation grow and sustain without a common language?

So, on the anniversary of the Webster American Dictionary, it seems fitting to think about these concepts – what is our common language and what are our cultural norms as reflected in our current dictionaries?  These questions have catapulted me to look at some additions (words, phrases) to our recent dictionaries.

In 2012, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries Online rolled out a long list of new words ─ many born out of social media and slang usage. Here are some examples:

  • date night, n.: a prearranged occasion on which an established couple, especially one with children, go for a night out together.
  • Dunbar’s number, n.: a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom any individual is able to sustain a stable or meaningful social relationship (usually considered to be roughly 150).
  • e-cigarette, n.:  another term for electronic cigarette.
  • e-learning, n.: learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the Internet.
  • ethical hacker, n.: a person who hacks into a computer network in order to test or evaluate its security, rather than with malicious or criminal intent.
  • manage expectations, phr.: seek to prevent disappointment by establishing in advance what can realistically be achieved or delivered by a project, undertaking, course of action, etc.
  • group hug, n.: a number of people gathering together to hug each other, typically to provide support or express solidarity.
  • guilty pleasure, n.: something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.
  • hackathon, n.: an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.
  • lifecasting, n.: the practice of broadcasting a continuous live flow of video material on the Internet which documents one’s day-to-day activities.
  • lolz, pl. n.: fun, laughter, or amusement.
  • mwahahaha, exclamation: used to represent laughter, esp. manic or cackling laughter such as that uttered by a villainous character in a      cartoon or comic strip.
  • NFC, abbrev.: near field communication, a technology allowing the short-range wireless intercommunication of mobile phones and other devices for purposes such as making payments.
  • OH, n.: a person’s wife, husband, or partner (used in electronic communication).
  • photobomb, v.: spoil a photograph of (a person or thing) by suddenly appearing in the camera’s field of view as the picture is taken, typically as a prank or practical joke (n.: photobombing).
  • ridic, adj.: ridiculous (abbrev.).
  • ripped, adj. [new sense]: having well-defined or well-developed muscles; muscular.
  • takeaway, n. [new sense]: a key fact, point, or idea to be remembered, typically one emerging from a discussion or meeting.
  • tweeps, pl. n.: a person’s followers on the social networking site Twitter.
  • UI, n.: short for ‘user interface.’
  • video chat, n.: a face-to-face conversation held over the Internet by means of webcams and dedicated software.
  • vote, v. [new sense: vote someone/thing off the island]: dismiss or reject someone or something as unsatisfactory      [with reference to the reality television Survivor).
  • Wikipedian, n.: a person who contributes to the collaboratively written online encyclopedia Wikipedia, esp. on a regular basis.
  • 3D printing, n.: a process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material.

So, we can all see that our words change and our lists of words (dictionaries) have to change with them.  Language is a living depiction of our common languages. Noah Webster knew this and this is what motivated him to add American-English words to the then-English dictionary.

Some final thoughts about Noah Webster, a brilliant thinker about nation-building and language. Webster spends 27 years on his dictionary project. To evaluate the origins (etymology) of words, he learns 26 languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. His book ends up containing 70,000 words ─12,000 of which never appeared in a published dictionary before. He believes that English spelling rules (think England) are too complex, so he introduces American English spellings in his book (e.g., “colour” becomes “color,” “waggon” becomes “wagon,” and “centre” becomes “center.” He also adds American words that derive from Native American peoples (e.g., “skunk,” “squash”) that do not appear then in British dictionaries. At the age of 70, he finally publishes his dictionary and it sells 2500 copies. In 1840, the second edition is published in two volumes. But it costs so much ($15-$20 per copy) that sales are meager. Nevertheless, Webster steps up on many fronts as a writer and advocate for an American national identity. Wherever he goes, he markets his book, meets with publishers and booksellers, puts ads in the newspapers, etc. And he works on other projects like his own edition of the Bible. Clearly, he’s not a guy who gives up. There’s a 2011 book about Noah Webster by Joshua Kendall (The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture) explaining that today Webster would be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Hmmm…. had Webster been mentally sound, is the thinking he would not have gone down these paths so intently or been so productive? I guess we should appreciate OCD more then.

This is my 2014 tribute: Wherever your good spirit resides, thank you, Noah Webster, for your vision, productivity, and incredible work ethic. And thanks for not including in the American dictionary I used as a parent the numerous “bad” words that my young son was not supposed to use ─ even though today I’m glad that current dictionaries capture these. You would be the first, I think, to recognize that times have changed, and language stays alive with these changes.


[1] Check out the fascinating history of dictionaries at Wikipedia.  Some examples: Oldest known dictionary is 2300 BCE (abbreviation for Before the Common/Current/Christian Era)  ─ cuneiform tablets containing bilingual word lists (two languages) was discovered in modern Syria. A Chinese dictionary is thought to be earliest surviving single-language dictionary (3rd century BCE). The first Sanskrit dictionary (4th century CE – Common/Current Era/ Christian Era) listed around 10,000 words. An Irish dictionary (9th-century CE) contains derivations/explanations of 1,400+ words. In medieval Europe, there’s the development of many glossaries depicting equivalents for Latin words. First edition of Greek-to-English lexicon appears in 1843 — basic dictionary of Greek until end of 20th century. In 1755, first modern English Dictionary appears (Samuel Johnson’s). The words are arranged alphabetically rather than by topic (previously popular form of arrangement). Johnson’s Dictionary remains  English-language standard for over 150 years until Oxford University Press produces Oxford English Dictionary from 1884 onwards (in pieces). It takes nearly 50 years to complete 12-volume OED by 1928. This remains the most comprehensive, trusted English language dictionary today, with revisions/updates added every three months. Within this long line of dictionaries, comes Noah Webster –in 1806 beginning his work with compendium and ending with first American dictionary in 1828.

[2] Some current dictionaries point out when words are considered vulgar, offensive, erroneous, or easily confuse; some are prescriptive, offering warnings and admonitions against the use of certain words considered by many to be offensive, illiterate, or taboo.

[3] The Writer’s Almanac, April 14, 2014.