May 28, 2007

Anniversary of Noah Webster's Death

Today marks the anniversary of Noah Webster, best known for creating the first American dictionary.

Webster may be best known for his dictionary, but it was not the first book Webster wrote, and certainly not the most successful in his own lifetime.

Webster was a teacher, a journalist, and a political writer, but it was as a teacher that he had his greatest impact. Thoroughly disgusted with the English textbooks he was forced to teach from, he authored a 3 volume set of textbooks: a speller, a grammar, and a reader.

Webster believed that a democratic society such as ours must have a democratic language. He rejected the notion that "proper" English usage should be determined by the aristocracy, as it was in England, but rather that it should be determined by general usage. On the other hand, he strongly believed that America required a uniformity of language, spelling, and pronunciation, so that Americans would be able to understand each other. His set of textbooks was an important first step to that goal.

Webster's The Elementary Spelling Book was by far the best-selling American book of its time, selling over a million copies a year. Even at royalties of less than one cent a book, this was enough to provide Webster with a modest income throughout his life. Webster's "Americanization" of the English language is the main reason we spell so many words differently than the English such as center instead of centre and honor instead of honour. He also changed the pronunciation of tion from the European
"she un" to "shun".

An American Dictionary of the English Language, when it was finally finished after 27 years of work, continued the Americanization of the English language. In addition to the reforms of his Speller and Grammar books, he added uniquely American words such as "squash", "hickory", and "chowder". The final product contained 70,000 words -- 12,000 of which had never appeared in any dictionary.

Today, his dictionary has sold more copies than any book in the English language except the Bible.

Why wasn't it more popular during Webster's lifetime? The steep $20 price tag might have had something to do with it.

Illustration: Noah Webster, from a 1911 print, artist unknown, public domain

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