National Dictionary Day is held on October 16th in honor of Noah Webster’s (1758-1843) birthday. Webster was a spelling reformer that believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex. One wonders whether he really made things simpler, or rather just made them different. He spent 27 years compiling 70,000 words for his dictionary. In his publication, he introduced new, Americanized spellings that reflected his belief that the U.S. should have its own individual literature. Observe this National Dictionary Day with some of these ideas.
He completed his dictionary during his year abroad in Paris, France, at the University of Cambridge. Of his seventy thousand words, twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before. It seems that he did not come to his senses even with the time in France.
Noah is responsible for changing the spelling of British words into what we know as American words. Examples include replacing “colour” with “color,” substituting “wagon” for “waggon” and printing “center” instead of “centre.” Webster also added American words such as “skunk” and “squash” that did not appear in British dictionaries.
- During his first career as a schoolteacher at the time of the American Revolution, Webster was concerned that most of his students’ textbooks came from England. It could be argued that he should not have been surprised given the scholarly connection to England and its language. So in 1783 he published his own American text, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. The “Blue-Backed Speller,” as it was popularly known, went on to sell nearly 100 million copies over the next century.
- Webster subscribed to the biblical account of the origin of language, believing that all languages derived from Chaldee, an Aramaic dialect. He had a desire to get to the source words which the English had gathered from other countries.
- Though he fought for a strong federal government, Webster opposed plans to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. “Liberty is never secured with such paper declarations,” he wrote, “nor lost for want of them.”
- Even though he himself borrowed shamelessly from Thomas Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue (1740) and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Webster fought vigorously to protect his own work from plagiarists. His efforts led to the creation of the first federal copyright laws in 1790.
- Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), a forerunner of An American Dictionary, sparked a “war of the dictionaries” with rival lexicographer Joseph Worcester. But Worcester’s Comprehensive Pronouncing and Explanatory English Dictionary didn’t stand a chance. Webster’s work, with 5,000 words not included in British dictionaries and with definitions based on the usage of American writers, soon became the recognized authority.
- In 1810, he published a booklet on global warming titled “Are Our Winters Getting Warmer?”
- Although Webster is credited for introducing such distinctive American spellings as color, humor, and center (for British colour, humour, and centre), many of his innovative spellings (including masheen for machine and yung for young) failed to catch on.
- In 1833 he published his own edition of the Bible, updating the vocabulary of the King James Version and cleansing it of any words that he thought might be considered “offensive, especially for females.” The guy just did not know when to stop. It seems that he felt the “offensive” parts of the Bible were acceptable for male readers. He elaborate of why.