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Webster’s First

The pioneer who discovered the American language.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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What provided Webster with the funds necessary to undertake and carry out the dictionary enterprise was the fabulous success of his rewriting of a widely used 18th-century speller by the Englishman Thomas Dilworth. Webster’s redoing of Dilworth was pitched toward American children, limiting itself to commonly used terms and differing from Dilworth by grouping together monosyllabic words that sounded alike (bug, dug, hug, lug, mug, tug) and proceeding to words of more than one syllable. English and Irish place names were replaced by a list of the American states, important towns, and counties. There is a parallel, notes Kendall, with the recent political revolution: Just as the American military had taken on the tyrannical British government, the American literati, Webster felt, now had to strike out against the unwieldy British language, bringing order to chaos. Originally named rather formidably A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the most significant section was renamed The American Spelling Book, a volume that over the next century would sell more copies than any book except the Bible.

Webster’s lifetime friend, Timothy Pickering, who would become Washington’s secretary of state, stayed up all night reading the Spelling Book and reported to his wife that “the time will come when no authority as an English grammarian will be superior to [Webster’s] own.” A few years later, after hearing Webster lecture, and in a passage Kendall doesn’t quote, Pickering wrote to his nephew:

With respect to Mr. Webster, you must have noticed that with a competent share of good sense, he possessed a quantum sufficit of vanity .  .  . [and] so much of egotism, especially in a young man .  .  . as to prevent his hearers receiving the satisfaction that might otherwise have been derived from many ingenious observations.

Webster was “not known for his playfulness,” Kendall observes in an understatement: “I do not remember to have seen him smile,” testified a young man who delivered page proofs of the dictionary to him. Webster disposed of Shakespeare by admitting his genius but noting in him “the grossest improprieties” and that “his language is full of errors, and ought not to be offered as a model for imitation.” This habit of vilification, of which Kendall takes full note, had its milder version when, after asking a boy loitering whether his mother didn’t want him at home, Webster hired the boy to pick up the stones from the road in front of his house (payment 12-and-a-half cents an hour).

The sweep of his activities and publications is mind-boggling. A brief enumeration includes editorship of a literary magazine and newspaper, lectures on copyright law, and his stimulation of a national census by personally counting the houses in various American cities. In response to an epidemic of yellow fever he produced A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases, consisting of 700 pages, later termed by William Osler as the most important medical work written in America by a layman. In his spare time, as it were, he fell “madly in love” (Kendall’s hard-to-believe words for it) with Rebecca Greenleaf, married her, and sired seven children whom he treated with some austerity. While at work on the dictionary he became a devout Calvinist, and after moving from New Haven to Amherst, became a founder of Amherst College.

Meanwhile, the great work was proceeding, first by publication of a Compendious Dictionary (“compendious” meaning short) as a trial run for the longer work. Here Kendall, because of the scope of his book, simply doesn’t have the space to do full justice to its composition, and interested readers should seek out David Micklethwait’s Noah Webster and the American Dictionary for a fascinating account of the operation. Micklethwait points out that it was a great advance in lexicography, “not because Webster defined so well, but because he defined so widely,” the result being thousands of artistic and scientific terms hitherto available only in specialist dictionaries. Kendall notes that while Webster set out to replace, even to “slay,” Dr. Johnson (his own dictionary would contain 12,000 more words than his predecessor’s), a third of his definitions demonstrate Johnson’s influence.

Webster’s Third Dictionary now sells better in its Web-based venue than in copies of the printed book, but the Collegiate Dictionary, which has sold 56 million copies since 1898, will see a new edition in 2013. Kendall assures us that the company is keeping up to date with the language and has recently included such additions as “chick flick,” for which we can all be grateful.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.

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