What Noah Webster knew 185 years ago

I’ve always been a Noah Webster fan. He knew that words are important, really important. They’re the building blocks ─ the cells ─ of language. And anyone who spent some 30 years poring over the definitions of words and organizing them for the rest of us ─ so we could communicate better ─ was onto something. Like building a national railroad, highway system or air transportation system to enable us to more readily move from place to place and permit commerce among us, a “codified” language was essential.

I was such a fan of Noah Webster that I named my son after him (and after “Noah of the ark” as well). My love of words and animals seemed a fitting legacy.

Looking up words and reading the dictionary was a regular activity in our house when Noah was growing up. We had multiple dictionaries on our bookshelves ─ children’s dictionaries with lots of illustrations, college dictionaries, and an abridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).The latter provides the origin of the word (first time it appears in the English language) plus passages from literature using the word. An important “life” lesson comes from the OED, where you see the meaning of words changing over time. Like so many things in life, you come to understand that many things just don’t/won’t stay the same ─ even the meaning of words.

For many of us now, turning to a dictionary has become a “digital” event ─ you do a search for the meaning of a word on your computer and up pops a variety of electronic dictionary sources on the screen. One of the choices will likely be Wikipedia as well, the free-content encyclopedia. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference websites. There is no “new” Noah Webster writing the Wikipedia entries. Rather, Wikipedia is written collaboratively by mostly anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. And unlike printed reference materials that may take months and even years to get to publication, Wikipedia is continually created and updated, with articles on new historical events appearing within minutes.

Last week, my son and I were chatting about a topic he’s researching for a paper in his university studies. At one point he pulled three dictionaries from our bookshelves to consult. One was my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a gift from a family friend when I was 14. The second was the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that Noah received for his 18th birthday when he was preparing to go to college. The third was the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a Valentine’s Day gift from a friend when I was in graduate school. Noah looked up his word (tolerability) in each dictionary. And like so many dictionary visits before, Noah stopped to call out words he was amused to see near tolerability and other neighboring “T” words.

I’m left thinking about the word searches I often do now on the computer ─ resulting in near-immediate lists of reference sources and definitions. But going to print books ─ where you can turn pages, see what words fall on the same pages, and stop to investigate words you may have never met before ─ is a worthy, important activity too. Having a print dictionary and becoming proficient at information retrieval on the computer are both/ands ─ there’s a time for them both.

I hope we’ll give the children in our lives their own print dictionary and tell them about Noah Webster and why language is so important. And then take a train ride or a drive in the car and talk about the many “highways” that link us, whether constructed of concrete, rail, air ─ or words.

And for those of you who want to know more about the man, Noah Webster, here’s information courtesy of The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, from April 14, 2013: <http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2013/04/14>.

It was on this day in 1828 that Noah Webster‘s American Dictionary of the English Language was published (books by this author). Webster put together the dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England. And the problem wasn’t just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.

Noah Webster was schoolteacher in Connecticut. He was dismayed at the state of education in the years just after the Revolution. There wasn’t much money for supplies, and students were crowded into small one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. His students’ spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public; it was assumed that there were several spellings for any word.

So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book,but usually called by the nickname “Blue-Backed Speller.” The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words — it was Webster who took the letter “u” out of English words like colour and honour; he took a “g” out of waggon, a “k” off the end of musick, and switched the order of the “r” and “e” in theatre and centre.

In 1801, he started compiling his dictionary. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy;and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England’s monarchy.

Webster spent almost 30 years on his project, and finally, on this day in 1828, it was published. But unfortunately, it cost 15 or 20 dollars, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies.

The book did help launch Webster as a writer and a proponent of an American national identity. Webster had a canny knack for marketing, traveling around to meet with new publishers and booksellers, publishing ads in the local newspapers for his book wherever he went. He also lobbied for copyright law and served for a time as an adviser to George Washington, and wrote his own edition of the Bible. And his tallies of houses in all major cities led to the first American census.

In his book The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011) Joshua Kendall argued that Noah Webster would today be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.



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