There was an important milestone for all word weavers the other day– 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 because it’s said he couldn’t settle on one career path. It took him years of hopping from pillar to post up until the Revolutionary War when he served in the Connecticut Militia. He also became a lawyer during the war. If you can’t imagine how he managed that, remember the battles of war weren’t happening everywhere at once.
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. I’ve written about The Enlightenment before. Coming of age with these enlightened principles, Noah wanted that Utopian new world. Here you can see 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.
This fellow of strong opinion soon 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 believed knowledge was power and gaining one’s knowledge early in life was key. Where better to begin than in the American schools? By 1785, Noah had written both a speller and grammar book for elementary schools. His Blue-backed Spellers were very well received and would go on to teach 5 generations of Americans. That’s an incredible run. Proceeds from his spellers allowed him to work on his more complicated ideas. Those Blue-backed Spellers were only part of a bigger concept.
America was multicultural from the start and by nature was comprised of people speaking different languages. In Noah’s time the King’s English was predominant but this was spelled, pronounced, and used differently everywhere you went. Noah hoped to standardize the hodgepodge into American English. he realized to do this mega undertaking, he’d need to study historical linguistic changes of words. And to do that, he learned twenty-six languages, including several dead and obsolete. And so A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was written, followed by The American Dictionary of the English Language. 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 added new sections and illustrations but didn’t change any of the main text. A complete overhaul was done in 1864 and again the work retained many of Noah’s definitions as well as his original title. As language evolves more words are added and the dictionary undergoes revisions– with words such as texting, lifehack, and gender-fluid added to the rest.
From Noah Webster’s 70,000 words to today’s Merriam-Webster with more than 470,000, all I can say is these lexicographer word-nerds have given me years of wordie joy. Did I mention I collect words? I do I have dozens of word origin books, dictionaries, and thesauri. What can I say? I’m a word-nerd too.
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Today is Author Sharon Hamilton’s blog day
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