Making a Dictionary ‘American’

Do people still buy print dictionaries? If you use a dictionary at all, it is likely to be an online dictionary, such as dictionary.com, thefreedictionary.com, or yourdictionary.com or Wikipedia for a more detailed entry, or even just asking your phone for a definition. But with all those online options, printed dictionaries still have fans and buyers.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary has gone through multiple printings by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt even though its former publisher, Wiley, was ready to drop it back in 2011.

That dictionary and several others carry the name of Noah Webster. In 1828, Noah Webster‘s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. The keyword in its title is “American.”

Webster decided to put together his dictionary because he wanted an American dictionary of English that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England.

This was a half-century after the revolution to separate from England, but that wasn’t the only reason to have an American version. Communication across the growing United States was hampered by regional dialects that differed drastically, and also a lack of standardization in spelling and usage.

Noah Webster was not a publisher or lexicographer. He was a Connecticut school teacher. He was unhappy with the lack of school supplies, small one-room schoolhouses, and leftover textbooks from England that did not represent life in America.

He actually published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783. The first section was later retitled The American Spelling Book, but was nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller.”

In these books and later in his dictionary, Webster gave American rules of spelling. He simplified and standardized words. He took the letter “u” out of many English words – colour and honour became color and honor based on American pronunciation. The double G of waggon was made single. Musick lost its K. Theatre and centre had a letter reversal to theater and center.

original Webster dictionary
Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 is considered one of the documents that changed the world

He started compiling his dictionary which continued the standardizing and Americanizing of spellings. But he also included new American words. many of those words came from colonists’ adoption of Native American words for new things they encountered. Some of the spellings and pronunciations of those native words are pretty far off from their original use by American Indians, but his versions became the accepted forms. This is when words such as skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory and opossum became “officially” part of American English. He also added new words like lengthy. Words such as presidential, Congress, and caucus were added to those used in England’s monarchy.

Noah put in 30 years on this project. When it was published in 1828, it cost about $20 which kept it out of the hands of most Americans. Webster died in 1843 and did not see any widespread sales of his dictionary, but it was accepted by educators.

 

Webster had other interests beyond words, spelling and dictionaries. In his book, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, Joshua Kendall writes about how Noah lobbied for copyright law, served as an adviser to George Washington, wrote his own edition of the Bible, and his enumerating of houses in major cities led to the first American census.

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

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