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Noah Webster

 

Noah Webster

Information on the man who wrote the first dictionary of the English language for American users.

"everyman of common reading knows that a living language must necessarily suffer gradual changes in its current words, in the significations of many words, and in pronunciation". -- Noah Webster

The first dictionary by Noah Webster of the English language for American users was called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. Webster is widely credited with writing the very first American dictionary, even though a couple of other, less significant American works preceded the Compendious Dictionary. But neither of these had the stature of Webster's works, nor did they break away from the British practices and standards as did Webster's work. His book was intended to be more correct for American users than the London dictionaries then available.

Thousands of the words and definitions in this early reference book, first published in the year 1806, remain unchanged almost 200 years later. But a review of many of the entries brings home the reality of a vital, changing language. Not only do spellings change over time, (for example, the word 'leather' did not always have an 'a' in it, and the word 'tongue' was spelled 'tung' during Webster's time) but meanings change as well, as in the word 'Inlaw' which used to be a verb that meant 'to clear from outlawry, to restore' rather than a noun referring to the family of one's spouse.

Furthermore, some words simply go out of style or fall out of use. Have you ever heard a bog or quagmire referred to as a 'mizzy'? And even the style of the alphabet letters themselves has changed somewhat. If the lower case letter 's' fell within a sentence rather than at the beginning, it used to look a lot like the modern lower case 'f'. As a result, a 'Seahorfe' was a 'fea animal'. But some of Webster's definitions were just a tad off kilter. The Seahorfe, according to Webster, was a 'large fea animal' and a 'Sealion' was a 'marine animal with a mane'.

But for all these quirks of this dictionary, and the strangeness some of it has for us after all this time, Webster's work has been a boon to the work of writers of the tricky language called English, and especially the American version thereof. Noah Webster was referred to as a 'born definer'. The lexicon he produced was intended for serious adult use, as well as for an education tool for children. On the title page of the original book, Webster included the inscription, “… for the benefit of the Merchant, the Student and the Traveller”. And yes, he spelled 'Traveller' with two 'l's.

Noah Webster was a school teacher at the end of the 18th century. In support of his line of work, he authored a best selling spelling book with a blue cover called the Grammatical Institute of the English Language that ultimately sold over seventy million copies. It was referred to as the 'blue-backed speller' and was in wide use for a hundred years. Benjamin Franklin is reported to have taught his granddaughter to read using this book. Webster also wrote a book on American English grammar.

At the beginning of the 19th century, when he was 43 years old, Webster decided to write a dictionary because people in different parts of the country pronounced and used words differently. He wanted to create a common source of accuracy. But, in reflection of national revolutionary sentiments, he did not believe the American people should speak and spell in the same ways as people in England. He was quite willing to adapt his version of the dictionary to accommodate American users, and to distinguish them from their fellow English speakers in England. He added words that were distinctly American, such as, skunk and hickory, and he changed the spellings of many words and turned such words as neighbour into neighbor, centre into center, and plough into plow.

His Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was finished in 1806. From there he decided to create a more complete dictionary. Webster determined early on that American Dictionary of the English Language would be a two volume set. This massive lifetime compilation of work took him twenty-two years to complete and contained over 70,000 words. It was finally published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old. It was considered more complete and authoritative than even Samuel Johnson's 1755 British dictionary. In 1840 Webster produced yet another dictionary, this one entitled An American Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition. He died in 1843.

But his heritage lived on when a couple of brothers in the printing business, Charles and George Merriam of Springfield Massachusetts, purchased all of the unsold copies of the 1840 dictionary as well as the exclusive publishing rights from his heirs. This was Webster's most comprehensive work. The Merriams now owned exclusive rights to publish revisions and abridgements. They published the first Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1847. Their line of dictionaries went on uninterrupted and continues to be published today, forever updating the records of the American English language with each new edition.

Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758 and grew up in West Hartford Connecticut. His parents were farmers and weavers. He had two brothers, Charles and Abraham, and two sisters, Mercy and Jerusha. Noah was sent to college at Yale although few people attained higher educations in those days of the Revolutionary War. Webster graduated at the age of 18 in 1778, and worked as a teacher. He eventually managed to study the law, a dream he'd had since school days. He worked toward the creation of copyright laws. Also in his career, he was a magazine editor and wrote extensively on political matters. He was a staunch supporter of the Constitutional Convention. He believed the United States should have a separate cultural identity from England, a fact reflected in his work to define an American language.

The Webster childhood home is now a museum where visitors can see copies of his spelling book, grammar manual and dictionaries. The museum also displays china, glassware, a desk, and two clocks owned by the adult Webster.


Written by Kellie Sisson Snider© 2002 Pagewise