Noah Websteran 18th century American patriot, copyright pioneer and author of a dictionary that sustains his name centuries later. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, Webster is known both for fighting in the American Revolution and for his position as being a strong advocate for the Constitutional Convention. His admiration of valiant creative people and their regard for the preservation of their civil ideals was surpassed by the feeling of lament at how hesitant they could be when it came to the protection of their own interests. Intensely believing in the development of the United States cultural independence, he realized the necessity of a fundamental element of a unique American language with its own style, pronunciation and idiom (White 5). In 1806, Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first true American dictionary and Websters first small lexicographical work. Subsequently, he went to work on his classic masterpiece, An American Dictionary of the English Language. He learned a total of 26 languagesincluding Anglo-Saxon and Sanskritin order to research the foundation of his own country’s native tongue. Published in 1828, this book embodied a new pattern of lexicography. Its 70,000 entries surpassed Samuel Johnson’s 1755 British masterpiece not only in scope but also in authority (King 73).
Noah Websters Calvinist family was typical of the colonial times; born in modest circumstances, Noah longed for elite social status (Bush 1508). His father farmed and worked as a weaver; his mother worked at home. Noah and his two brothers, Charles and Abraham, helped their father with the farm work while their sisters, Mercy and Jerusha, worked with their mother to keep house and feed and clothe the family. Noah loved to learn so his parents let him attend Yale, which was Connecticut’s only college, and he graduated in the class of 1778. Although he was initially unable to study law because his parents could not financially support him in that endeavor, he taught school to earn money and later fulfilled his dream (Shalhope 1761).
Through his teaching experiences, Noah discovered he did not like American schools. All ages of children were crammed into one-room schoolhouses with no desks, an insufficient amount of books and inexperienced teachers. Because the books they used came from England and Webster believed Americans should learn from American books, he wrote his own textbook in 1783. Most people called it the “Blue-backed Speller” because of its blue cover, but its actual title was A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. Later, it was reissued under the title The American Spelling Book and in this form went through edition after edition (Baugh 360). The most popular American book of its time, Ben Franklin used taught his granddaughter to read by using Websters book. His success with the blue-backed spelling book earned him both a steady income and the means to dedicate his life to the first American dictionary. This is the premier American textbook, of which more than seventy-five million copies have been sold and which still has its devotees (White 5).
In 1789, Noah Webster married Rebecca Greenleaf, who bore their eight children. The family lived in New Haven, then moved to Massachussets, where Noah helped to start Amherst College. When he was 43, Webster began writing the first American dictionary because Americans in various parts of the country spelled, pronounced and used words differently and he thought that all Americans should speak uniformly. Furthermore, he also thought that Americans should not speak and spell just like the English (King 72).
Webster spent much of his late 20s and early 30s crossing the American wilderness to petition on the steps of 13 capitals for copyright protection.
Through this, he learned the art of expressing the codes of justice that underline democracy. His 1785 pamphlet, Sketches Of American Policy, also exemplified Websters dedication as a member of the Federalist Party. This pamphlet recommended the proposed United States Constitution be adopted and became such an inspiration for the U.S. Constitution that in 1787 it replaced the Articles of Confederation. In 1830 Webster convinced Congress to enact a new federal bill that gave authors the right to copyright their works for 28 years, allowing their wives and children able to renew it for an additional 14 years. The law remained in effect until 1909, with the latest Copyright Act revised in 1976 and enacted in 1978, guaranteeing copyright- holders life protection plus 50 years. Recentlyto conform to international standards the term was extended to life plus 70 years (White 5).
A self-proclaimed insatiable collector of information and a lover of words, Webster did many other things in his life than define, spell and research so many words that his name became synonymous with the American dictionary (Bush 1508). He lobbied for copyright laws, wrote textbooks, Americanized the English language and edited magazines. Briefly, Webster settled in New York City in 1793, where he founded New York’s first daily newspaper, The Minerva, which later became The Commercial Advertiser. During the time he spent in New York, Webster also began a semiweekly called The Herald, later known as The Spectator. Both the daily and semiweekly newspapers were in strong support of the Federalist Party (.
After leaving New York City, Webster returned to Connecticut where he settled in New Haven around 1803. Written in 1806, the over 40,000-word A Compendious Dictionary Of The American Language enfolded and approved a free people’s developing vernacular, with such spelling reforms as “jail” instead of “gaol” and “defense” rather than “defence” (White 5). Most importantly, Noah Webster owns the unique distinction of having single-handedly rescued the English Language from the corrupting political and social influences of the European Nations of his day. He preserved the language with a pure connection to the original roots in other languages and provided a necessary tool for our new nationand all later generationsto understand the writings of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution. Webster’s eagerness to improve the language made him the first to archive distinctively American vocabulary such as skunk, hickory, and chowder. He urged the alteration of many wordsmusick to music, centre to center, and plough to plowrationalizing that many spelling customs were unnatural and pointless.Although these attempts were widely accepted as the norm, various other attempts at reform were less acknowledged, such as his support for modifying tongue to tung and women to wimmen. He disputed “the old and true spelling” most accurately indicated the pronunciation of a word.
While Webster was promoting his dictionary, George and Charles Merriam opened a printing and bookselling operation in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1831. The G. & C. Merriam Co., which was renamed Merriam-Webster Inc. in 1982, inherited the Webster legacy when the Merriam brothers bought the unsold copies of the 1841 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Corrected and Enlarged from Webster’s heirs after his death in 1843. During this process, they attained the rights to create revised editions of that work. Thus began a publishing tradition that has forged ahead without interruption, known today as Merriam-Webster. Eventually Webster’s dictionaries were purchased by the G. C. Merriam Company, giving them the right to call their publications Webster’s dictionaries, but subsequently the name Webster has gone into the public domain, and any dictionary company wishing to make its product seem more authoritative appends Webster to the title. The upshot of that is the term Webster’s on the front of a dictionary has become essentially meaningless. An enlarged edition of Webster’s dictionary was issued in 1840; it has appeared in several later revisions. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961; revised 1981) and an abridgement, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, are the latest of these revisions.
In the 1830s, around the age of 70, Webster wrote a number of reflective essays, which were inspired by what he saw as the political mayhem brought by Andrew Jackson’s ascension to the Presidency. His ideas of the Revolution and politics modified over the years, giving him motivation for his writing. Ancient Rome gave Webster many of his ideas about politicians including disapproval of extravagance, self-indulgence and corruption. Webster argued that man was a political being by nature, rising up in society by merit, not by birth. His greatest moral fulfillment came by taking part in a self-governing republic. People attained freedom when they were virtuous and willing to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of the community, which included serving in public office without pay. In Websters eyes, a politician should be independent, own his own land and not be directly involved in the marketplace. Otherwise, he might enter politics to intensify his own rewardnot for the established impartial reason of serving his country. An upright man relinquished private aspirations and interests for the good of the people. Moreover, Webster argued that only land-holding men over the age of 45 could be unbiased enough to have the franchise. George Washington was the consummate example of the disinterested politician in Noah Websters mind because he retired after his great military victories in the war without making political gains out of his achievements, seeing his role as President as a sacrifice for the common good.
Most people are unaware that todays dictionaries emulate the practice of “description” as opposed to “prescription”, which was the idea that the favored misuse of language should be allowed to modify the instituted meanings of words to suit the habits of each following generation. The removal of vast bodies of knowledge and wisdom from public access creates a dangerous situation, however, Noah Webster understood the connection between physical liberty and liberty of thought. Further, he understood the meanings of words played a key role in a person’s ability to develop a sound system of knowledge and principles based on unchanging absolutes. He also recognized the necessity of preserving the connection to our heritage of Liberty, as well as the failures of former systems of government and philosophy before the founding of our Constitutional Republic.
Webster’s importance does not rest only on the size of his work. He was the first authority to emphasize American rather than British usage and the first to list senses in the chronological order in which they made their appearance in the language. His etymologies were not entirely accurate by modern standards, but his precise definitions are models of lexical style. Also, by the inclusion of thousands of technical and scientific terms, Webster laid the groundwork for the modern comprehensive, rather than purely literary, dictionary. His Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in three partsspeller, grammar and reader, written from 1783 to 1785were the first books that earned the position of chief American authority on English for Noah Webster and the first of their kind to be published in this country (Baugh 360). The first part, the Elementary Spelling Book, helped standardize American spelling. It was the basic text used in schools and frontier children learned to read from it. About 1 million copies of the book were sold annually by 1850, although the population was under 23 million at that time.
Noah Webster can truly be remembered as the Father of the American Dictionary. Because of his extensive work and research, the American people are able to have a uniform language and one that is distinctly different from that of the English. Webster took risks, and although some ideas were not accepted, he refused to give up his dream of creating a unique American language. His experiences as a teacher, political activist, journalist and lawyer helped expose him to the changes that were necessary in the language not only of his lifetime, but also changes that would benefit the future generations. Although Webster earned a profit of less than one cent a copy for his books (Baugh 360), he persevered and because of this mans ideas and standardization of the language, it is possible for all Americans to communicate with one another. Authors of A History of the English Language, Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable manage to sum up Noah Webster in one sentence. They write, If, after a century and a half, some are inclined to doubt the existence of anything so distinctive as an American language, his efforts, nevertheless, have left a permanent mark on the language of this country (363).
Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 4th ed.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993. 360-366.
Bush, Vanessa. “Noah Webster and the American Dictionary.” The Booklist 96.16
King, Florence. “The Man Who Defined American Culture.” The American Spectator
32.5 (1999): 72-74.
Shalhope, Robert E. “Noah Webster: The Life and Time of an American Patriot.” The
Journal of American History 86.4 (2000): 1761.
White, Timothy. “Will Artists Fight for Rights as Webster Did?” Billboard 20 May 2000:
“Webster, Noah,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000
http://encarta.msn.com 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation.