Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Dictionary for Americans - Men & Women Alike

The Writer's Almanac for April 14, 2010.

On this day in 1828 that Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was published. Webster wanted to put together a dictionary because he wanted Americans to have a national identity that wasn't based on the language and ideas of England.

He said, "A national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character. However, they may boast of Independence, and the freedom of their government, yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent; an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners, are still prevalent among the Americans.' And the problem wasn't just that Americans were looking to England for their language; it was that they could barely communicate with each other because regional dialects differed so drastically.

Noah Webster grew up in Connecticut, went to Yale, and became a schoolteacher because he didn't have enough money to go to law school. As a teacher, he was frustrated with the state of education in the years just after the Revolution. There wasn't much money for supplies, and students were crowded into small one-room schoolhouses using textbooks from England that talked about the great King George. His students' spelling was atrocious, as was that of the general public; it was assumed that there were several spellings for any word, which only increased the difficulties people had in understanding each other.

So in 1783, he published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language; the first section was eventually retitled The American Spelling Book, but usually called by the nickname 'Blue-Backed Speller.' The Blue-Backed Speller taught American children the rules of spelling, and it simplified words -- it was Webster who took the letter 'u' out of English words like colour and honour; he took a 'g' out of waggon, a 'k' off the end of musick, and switched the order of the 'r' and 'e' in theatre and centre.

He began compiling his dictionary in 1801. Part of what he accomplished, much like his textbook, was standardizing spelling. He introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy, and presidential, Congress, and caucus, which were not relevant in England's monarchy.

His project had plenty of critics. After he announced his plans for his dictionary, one newspaper wrote: 'If, as Mr. Webster asserts, it is true that many new words have already crept into the language of the United States, he would be much better employed in rooting out those anxious weeds, than in mingling them with the flowers.' Another newspaper satirically referred to the project as 'a nue Merrykin Dikshunary.'

But nothing deterred Webster, and he spent almost 30 years on his project. It took three years for the dictionary to be set into type, and finally, on this day in 1828, it was published. The criticisms of it had diminished, and it was greeted with great respect. But unfortunately, it cost 15 or 20 dollars, which was a huge amount in 1828, and Webster died in 1843 without having sold many copies.

But then two brothers from Springfield, Massachusetts, stepped in: Charles and George Merriam. They bought the rights to the dictionary and the unsold copies, sold it at a low price, and changed the company to 'Merriam-Webster' because Webster had such name recognition. They printed the first Merriam-Webster dictionary on September 24, 1847, for a cost of six dollars.