Noah Webster (1758–1843) was variously called Schoolmaster to the Nation, the Father of American Scholarship and Education, and the Forgotten Founding Father. He saw the untapped promise of the new republic. He was afire with the conviction that a U.S. no longer politically dependent on England should also become independent in language.
In his Dissertations on the English Language, published in 1789, Webster declared linguistic war on the King’s English: “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.”
In putting his vision into practice, Noah Webster traveled throughout the U.S., listening to people’s speech and taking detailed notes. He included in his dictionaries an array of shiny new American words, among them applesauce, bullfrog, chowder, handy, hickory, succotash, tomahawk—and skunk: “a quadruped remarkable for its smell.”
Webster also proudly used quotations by Americans to illustrate and clarify many of his definitions. The likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Jay, and Washington Irving took their places as authorities alongside William Shakespeare, John Milton, and the Bible. In shaping the American language, Webster also taught a new nation a new way to spell. He deleted the u from words such as honour, humour, and labour and the k from the likes of musick and publick. He also reversed the last two letters in words such as centre and theatre, and he Americanized the spelling of words such as waggon, plough, and gaol.
Noah Webster was truly a Renaissance man, a genius who seemed able to master every field of knowledge he sought to cultivate. In addition to his popularity as a writer of spellers, grammars, and dictionaries, he was a publisher, school teacher, salesman, lawyer, political theorist, and expert on epidemics that had recently swept the U.S.
His first fame came to him, at the age of 25, as the author of The Blue-Backed Speller, a book more widely read than any other in the U.S., only the Bible excepted. When the Speller went out of print in 1900, 70 million copies had been circulated.
From 1798 to 1828, Webster devoted himself entirely to what would be the crowning achievements of his busy life, his dictionaries. In 1806 he published his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and for the next 22 years he worked to expand and improve that lexicon, learning 26 languages, including Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and collecting 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had never been in a dictionary before. Webster published the result, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, when he was 70.
Perhaps the most enduring gift that Webster brought to the art of lexicography (dictionary making) was the writing style of his definitions, which were more clearly and directly expressed than those reposing in any other dictionary, British or American. Until Noah Webster’s work, the great lexical authority was the Englishman Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which Webster criticized for its imprecise etymologies, erratic definitions, and irrelevance to U.S. vocabulary and idiom.
Shortly after Noah Webster’s death, on May 28, 1843, Charles and George Merriam of Springfield, Massachusetts, purchased most of the publication rights of Webster’s estate. Merriam-Webster has long been the largest dictionary and reference book company in the world, and the massive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961) is the direct descendant of Noah Webster’s mind and spirit.
The name Webster has passed into public domain and become practically synonymous with the word dictionary, as in “according to Webster.” But most Americans think that it was Daniel Webster (orator, congressman, and secretary of state) who compiled the dictionaries. So let us remember Noah Webster and his unsurpassed contributions to our American language, the man who gave a young nation a voice to sing of itself.
Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 50 books on language, history, and humor, available at his website, www.verbivore.com. Please send your questions and comments about language to [email protected].