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  • Noah Webster at 250: a visionary or a crackpot? After all, he brought us ax and plow, but also deef and bridegoom

    Noah Webster, America's first language patriot, was born Oct. 16, 1758. He turns 250 today.

    A lawyer and schoolmaster who went to Yale and fought in the Revolutionary War, Webster bought into the Enlightenment view identifying language with nation, and he urged the newly-independent America to adopt its own language, a Federal English that was independent from the speech of its former masters. 

    Noah Webster

    Noah Webster, from his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

    Calling for a linguistic revolution to complement the recent political one, in 1789 Webster wrote, "A national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national." And he urged, "NOW is the time, and this the country, in which we may expect changes favorable to language . . . . Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government."

    Webster on an independent American language 

    In his early days as a linguistic firebrand, Webster suggested that anything less than an independent American language would be treason (Dissertations on the English Language, 1789, p. 406) 

    Nationalizing language was in the wind at the time, and although Webster insisted that American English was already so distinct from its Old World roots as to constitute an entirely different language, his ideas were actually on the moderate side. Some extremists wanted to replace English with Hebrew, thought at the time to have been the world's first language (after all, it was spoken in the Garden of Eden); or Greek, the language of Athens, the first democracy (democratic as long as you were a free, property-owning, adult male); or even French, the language of pure rationality (at least that's what the French always claimed).

    But changing language proved more daunting than changing government, and one founder, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, reportedly quipped that it would be "more convenient" for Americans to keep English for themselves and make the British speak Greek. (Oddly enough, no one suggested that German replace English: despite the myth that German failed to become America's official language by only one vote, that never happened. Never. No one mentioned Spanish either: even in the 1780s, Americans didn't consider it very useful.)

    Webster merged his linguistic patriotism with his need to make a living. Arguing that a newly-independent America shouldn't import its schoolbooks from England, he began printing domestic spellers and grammars, lobbying Congress to give his textbooks a federal seal of approval. Webster apparently failed to back up these requests with under-the-table campaign contributions, but even without a Congressional endorsement, his blue-backed spellers managed to become staples in America's classrooms for decades.

    Title page of Webster's American Spelling Book 

    Webster's spellers, bound in blue paper, were widely used in American schools

    Today Webster is better known for his dictionaries than his spelling books. He published his first short dictionary in 1806, and in 1828 he brought out the 2-volume American Dictionary of the English Language. But Webster never forgot about spelling, and his dictionaries were never short of new ways to spell.

    Although his ideas about the one best way to spell changed over time, Webster's American spelling generally meant dropping some final e's and making English orthography a little more phonetic. He wrote ax instead of axe, gray for grey, and plow, not plough. He also favored what eventually became an American preference for –er instead of the British  –re; and center and honor instead of centre and honour. Even so, Americans often prefer theatre to theater, and they occasionally prefer to patronize an upscale shopping centre.

    Webster successfully bet on  jail, mask, public and traveled instead of the British gaol, masque, publick, and travelled, and American dictionaries use those forms today. But not all of Webster's reforms panned out. He justified deef, not deaf, because deef is how his fellow New Englanders said the word. Webster also struck out with bridegoom for bridegroom, despite his explanation that the second element of the word came not from someone who sees to the horses, but from the Old English guma, meaning ‘man.’ And he insisted at one time or another on ake, soop, sley, spunge, tung, cloke, determin, and wimmen.

    Webster's explanation of  

    Webster's justification for respelling bridegroom (An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, s.v.) 

    Webster had his share of eccentric definitions as well (though nowhere near as many as his English competitor, Samuel Johnson): In the 1828 dictionary Webster defines preposterous as "perverted; wrong; absurd," illustrating the word with this zinger: "a republican government in the hands of females is preposterous." He called Judaism "a temporary dispensation." And he defined gipseys as "a race of vagabonds which infest Europe." 

    These oddities of spelling, pronunciation, and definition convinced many readers that Webster's view of standard English was too eccentric, and quite a few of them cast their lot with the more conservative dictionaries of Joseph Emerson Worcester.

    Sensing that a declaration of linguistic independence had proved a non-starter, and discovering that his American dictionary of English was actually climbing the charts in London, Webster suddenly found British pounds as desirable as American dollars and declared that there were no significant differences between British and American English. And while he didn't go so far as to characterize the United States and England as two great nations separated by a common language, he did insist that the status quo was really for the best: "It is desirable that the language on both sides of the Atlantic should remain the same."

    Webster was wrong about that as well: British and American English have drifted far enough apart to require separate American and British versions of the Harry Potter books, or to cause the occasional misunderstanding, for example when an American tries wading through the dialect of "All Creatures Great and Small" or a visiting Liverpudlian asks a Brooklynite, "Do you have a rubber?" followed by, "Shall I knock you up in the morning?" And although English has indeed become a global language as Webster's contemporary, John Adams, predicted that it would, the varieties of English around the world are different enough to be called, not English, but Englishes.

    Even so, it wasn't just with occasionally crackpot spellings, fanciful etymologies, oddball definitions, and patriotic zeal that Noah Webster made his mark on English: despite the fact that no dictionary records this meaning, the name webster itself has today become a synonym for dictionary.

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