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Friday, November 19, 2010

Noah Webster – American Lexicographer

According to “On This Day” at reference.com, Noah Webster's (1758-1843) first edition of AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE was released on April 14, 1828. I remembering hearing years ago that Webster wrote his dictionary because whenever he would say something to his wife over the breakfast table, she would reply “Now, what's that supposed to mean?” I don't know if this is true, an urban legend or just a joke.

Prior to the release of Webster's Dictionary, he was already well known. From 1783-85, he released GRAMMATICAL INSTITUTE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, a three-part speller, grammar and reader. It made him the chief American authority on the English Language, which he felt had been corrupted by the British Aristocracy. According to www.reference.com, “The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was, 'the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions', which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.”

Webster's frustration at having to copyright his books in each of the 13 colonies, each of which had their own copyright laws, led to his support of a National Copyright law, which passed in 1790.

His ELEMENTRY SPELLING BOOK helped standardize American spelling. School rooms across the country, as well as pioneer families in their own homes taught children to read from it. Towns used it for citizen-wide spelling bees. By 1850 the annual sales of Webster's spelling book was about 1,000,000 copies. That's one copy for every 23 citizens.

“AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE included definitions of 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had not appeared in such a work before. Its definitions were excellent, and the dictionary's sales reached 300,000 annually. This work, Webster's foremost achievement, helped to standardize American pronunciation. Webster completed the revision of 1840, and the dictionary, revised many times, has retained its popularity.,” says reference.com.

In addition to writing dictionaries and grammar books, Webster was a newspaper editor, an advocate for a Federal government (he wrote pamphlets in favor of a centralized government and urged the passing of the Constitution), and he wrote scholarly studies on subjects ranging from epidemic diseases to meteors to the relationship of European and Asian languages.

Raise your hand.....do you own a Webster's Dictionary?

Works Cited:

"Webster, Noah." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 09 Apr. 2009.

This post first appeared on Chatting with Anna Kathryn on April 10, 2009.

Anna Kathryn Lanier


Kathy Otten said...

Fascinating! So I wonder if Mr. Webster standarized spelling if he's to blame for words like read and red, bough, bow, and bow?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Writers love words and we usually like to know something about them. Great info.

Paty Jager said...

Fun information! LOL I agree with Kathy! I've always loved words and spelling. I have Mr. Webster to thank.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Kathy, Liz and Paty. Hmmm, I really don't know if he's the one responsible for the spelling of those words. Interesting thought, though. That's one thing about the Finnish language, it's phontically (? sp) correct. It wasn't written as a language until a few hundred years ago, and the person who wrote the language make it written exactly as it sounds. Not that made it any easier for me learn it!

Sally said...

It makes me wonder what Mr. Webster would have to say about language today. It has to grow and change but I sure enjoy hearing the words and sentence structure of yesteryear.

Leni said...

I own more than one and they are in different parts of the house. I carry a small one in my purse.