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  Issue Date: 4 / 2017  

Noah Webster, America's Word Master

Mike Timko

       Time marches on. It wasn’t too long ago that when you wanted to look
       up the meaning of a word you would open your dictionary, and chances
       were, not that long ago, it would be a Webster’s Dictionary.
        Now we go online and check on Google. We should be grateful for changes
       that make things easier, but we should not forget the past, especially
       the people and their ideas that helped our country become great. Noah
       Webster is one of those pioneers who should never be forgotten. As one
       of his biographers claimed: “He believed fervently in the developing
       cultural independence of the United States, a chief part of which was to
       be a distinctive American language with its own idiom, pronunciation,
       and style.”
        Webster was born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut. His parents
       soon realized that he was a gifted child and were determined that he
       would get a good education. He was admitted to Yale when he was sixteen
       years old and graduated in 1778. He then began to study law and also
       began teaching school to pay for his education. He was admitted to the
       bar and also gained an MA degree in 1781 ; he received the latter from
       Yale by giving an oral dissertation to the Yale graduating class.
        Noah was always interested in education. He also loved children and
       believed that they should receive the best education possible. He was
       also a great patriot, and he was convinced that it was through education
       that Americans would come to love their country the way he did. To
       Webster it soon became clear, chiefly because of this belief, that the
       textbooks used in schools, mostly developed in England, were inadequate,
       and he determined to produce his own that reflected American values and
       beliefs. He stated, at one time, that he had "too much pride to stand
       indebted to Great Britain for books to learn our children."
        Because of this conviction he wrote his famous dictionary and many
       other books; he wanted to teach as many children and citizens as
       possible about language and America. His most famous book is the
       American Dictionary, but in addition he wrote many others. Before he
       compiled his dictionary, he wrote and published three separate works
       dealing with spelling, grammar, and reading, under the title A
       Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Comprising, an Early,
       Concise, and Systematic Method of Education, Designed for the Use of
       English Schools in America.
        The “Speller’ was very popular, selling 200,000 copies a year; more
       importantly it reflected Webster’s view that American education should
       not be indebted to Great Britain. In Webster’s time different sections
       of the United States spelled, pronounced, and used words differently.
       Webster firmly believed every American should spell and pronounce and
       speak the same way, the American way, not the English way. It was the
       publication of the Dictionary, however, that brought Webster his great
       fame, and it clearly reflected his feelings about his country and its
       language. The American language belonged only to the Americans, and it
       should clearly convey this message.
        It took Noah 27 years to compile his dictionary. He began compiling it
       in 1807, stating that it would be “a dictionary which shall exhibit a
       far more correct state of the language than any work of this kind,” and
       finished it in 1828. He did all the work himself; his dictionary was
       unlike other dictionaries that had been compiled by committees or
       individuals like Samuel Johnson, the famous Englishman who had completed
       his dictionary with much help from others. He read other dictionaries,
       various books, and encyclopedias and he learned 26 languages, including

       Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit.
        He always wrote his own definitions, keeping in mind that this was an
       American dictionary for Americans. The dictionary was published in two
       volumes and had 70,000 words. Webster used American spellings like color
       instead of the English colour, music instead of musick, , center
       instead of centre , and plow instead of plough. He also added American
       words like skunk, chowder, Yankee, and squash.
        He summed up his reasons for writing his dictionary in the Preface:
       It is not only important, but, in a degree necessary, that the people of
       this country, should have an American Dictionary of the English
       language; for, although the body of the language is the same as in
       England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some
       differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the
       people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot
       retain an identity of language. . . . The institutions of this which are
       new and peculiar, give rise to new terms or to the applications of old
       terms, unknown to the people of England. …No person in this country will
       be satisfied with the English definitions of the words congress, senate
       and assembly, court, &c. for although these are words used in England,
       yet they are applied in that country to express ideas which they do not
       express in that country.
        Webster has been quoted countless times; here are three which indicate
       his attitude towards language, books, and country. 1) Every child in
       America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books
       that furnish him with ideas that that will be useful to him in life and
       practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history
       of his own country. 2) In selecting men for office, let principle be
       your guide. Regard not the particular sect of denomination of the
       candidate – look to his character. 3) Language is the expression of
       ideas, and if the people of one country cannot preserve a identity of
       ideas they cannot retain an identity of language.
        His work served to inspire many American authors. Many believe that
       Emily Dickinson, the great American poet, made extensive use of Noah
       Webster's Dictionary. Above all, however, his Dictionary also revealed
       his main goal in his life and labor: his love of children and his belief
       that they should receive the best education possible. As a great patriot
       he was convinced that it was through education that Americans would come
       to love their country the way he did. Because of his achievement, he
       should not be regarded, as one of his biographers stated, the forgotten
       founding father; instead, he should be remembered and admired as one who
       helped our nation become what it is today.

Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in The World & I over the past years.
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