I completely missed an important holiday yesterday, so I’m taking time to mention it today. On October 16, 1758, Noah Webster, the Father of The American Dictionary was born. Noah was a lexicographer, that is, he practiced the art of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries. A man after my own heart!
Born to parents who prized education, young Noah attended Yale at age 15. Apparently he was a restless young man, the proverbial ship without a rudder. He just couldn’t settle on one career path and it took him years of hopping from pillar to post before he served in the Connecticut Militia in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know how he managed it, but he also became a lawyer during the war.
I’ve written about The Enlightenment on this blog before. Coming of age with these enlightened principles, Noah wanted that utopian new world, and there’s no doubt that Noah was a man of seditious opinion. His thoughts were influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose modern take on political, sociological, and educational thought contributed to the French Revolution. Noah’s words have decidedly Rousseau-esque ring to them:
America sees the absurdities—she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered ‘and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition’: She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors: She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom; She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony … it will finally raise her to a pitch of greatness and lustre, before which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point, and the splendor of modern Empires fade into obscurity.
So, this fellow of strong opinion found himself an unemployed lawyer and an unsatisfied schoolteacher. With a desire for a better world playing in his mind, he picked up his pen and began crafting an “an intellectual foundation for American nationalism” . In other words, he knew knowledge was power, and gaining one’s knowledge early was key. By 1785, he’d written a speller and grammar book for elementary schools. Those Blue-backed Spellers were well received and would go on to teach 5 generations of Americans, but that idea was only part of a bigger picture. Their proceeds allowed him the opportunity to work on his larger idea — A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, followed by The American Dictionary of the English Language.
Because America was multicultural from the start, it naturally had different languages. However, the predominant King’s English was spelled, pronounced, and used differently everywhere you went. Noah hoped to standardize American English and to do that, he needed to study historical linguistic changes of words. And to do that, he learned twenty-six languages, including several dead ones. Because of him, we have our uniquely American words in the dictionary today — words like skunk and opossum, toboggan and canoe.
After Noah Webster’s death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam obtained publishing and revision rights to his work. When they published their first revision to the dictionary, they didn’t change any of the main text, only added new sections and illustrations. They did a complete overhaul in 1864 but retained many of his definitions as well as the title An American Dictionary. And since, it’s undergone revisions as language evolves. From Noah Webster’s 70,000 words, to today’s Merriam-Webster with more than 470,000, these lexicographer word-nerds have given me years of wordy joy. 🙂
The Trifecta capturing the sense of a story in exactly 99 words.
National Grouch Day (yes you read that right)
The Horny Hump Day
First Kiss Wednesday
“I would rather have eyes that cannot see; ears that cannot hear; lips that cannot speak, than a heart that cannot love.”
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Coming next week!