Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Publication of Noah Webster’s American dictionary was an important step in the movement to assert the cultural independence of the United States from Europe.

Summary of Event

Although the United States achieved its political independence from Great Britain in 1783, in many respects the new nation remained a cultural colony of Europe. This influence was particularly evident in what was regarded as “high” culture. Literature and the fine arts in the United States were largely derivative and subservient to European, especially British, standards. Although it was natural that a provincial country would follow the cultural leadership of the metropolitan centers of its mother country, U.S. nationalism after the American Revolution (1775-1783) demanded a national culture that would reflect American themes, roots, and ideals. American Dictionary of the English Language (Webster) Webster, Noah Dictionaries;American Literature;American [kw]Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English (Nov., 1828) [kw]Publishes the First American Dictionary of English, Webster (Nov., 1828) [kw]First American Dictionary of English, Webster Publishes the (Nov., 1828) [kw]American Dictionary of English, Webster Publishes the First (Nov., 1828) [kw]Dictionary of English, Webster Publishes the First American (Nov., 1828) [kw]English, Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of (Nov., 1828) American Dictionary of the English Language (Webster) Webster, Noah Dictionaries;American Literature;American [g]United States;Nov., 1828: Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English[1430] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Nov., 1828: Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English[1430] [c]Education;Nov., 1828: Webster Publishes the First American Dictionary of English[1430] Johnson, Samuel Merriam, Charles Merriam, George Dwight, Timothy

A literary group known as the Connecticut, Connecticut Wits or Hartford, Wits, Hartford Wits although still imitative of British and continental styles, strained to give the United States a unique and distinguished literature. Long after political independence had been achieved, Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo and other writers continued to call for cultural independence. However, despite Walt Whitman’s Whitman, Walt path-breaking poetry Poetry;American during the 1850’s, the nature of U.S. cultural relations with Europe remained a contentious matter well into the twentieth century. One strong force for, and cogent symbol of, the recurrent plea for a national culture that did stand out was Noah Webster’s publication of An American Dictionary of the English Language in November, 1828.

Born in Connecticut in 1758, Webster graduated from Yale College when he was twenty years of age. As a Yale graduate and member of Hartford’s Friendly Club, he associated with artist John Trumbull, writers Theodore and Timothy Dwight Dwight, Timothy Dwight, Theodore , and other Connecticut Wits. Webster’s own early contributions toward elevating American culture were as an educator, a function that his lexicographical career continued on a broader scale. His biographers have regularly accorded him titles such as Schoolmaster of America and Schoolmaster of the Republic. In that role, he was the author of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language Grammatical Institute of the English Language, A (Webster) (1787), eventually a three-volume textbook for schoolchildren. The first part of this series became famous as the “Blue-Backed Speller.” According to one biographer, no other book, except the Bible, played a more important role in unifying the United States. Parts 2 and 3 of Webster’s work, a grammar and a reader, also did much to mold American self-identity.

Webster’s concern with language usage stemmed partly from his conviction that language was an important national bond. He believed that linguistic independence should follow political independence, with the gradual evolution of a distinct American dialect of English. He was eager to accelerate the process leading to that end, not only through the sanctioning and encouragement of American usages but also through his advocacy of a reformed American spelling.

At one time, adopting a reformed phonetic alphabet Alphabets;phonetic seemed to Webster the best way to render the United States culturally independent of Great Britain. He enlisted the support of the venerable statesman Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;and alphabet[Alphabet] in a plan to have the Confederation Congress promulgate the new alphabet. Although Webster came to realize that radical changes could not win support, he remained the advocate of spelling reform, as in the removal of silent or unnecessary letters. His authority did eventually support such minor deviations of American English from the parent tongue as the omission of the u in words such as “honour” and “colour.” He also defended distinctly American pronunciations and variations. Although Webster lived in comparatively insular Connecticut, he grasped that the ethnically and racially multicultural populations in Britain’s other North American colonies had infused English with a mixture of indigenous, African, and non-English European vocabulary and sentence structure.

Late nineteenth century montage honoring Noah Webster for his contributions to American education.

(Library of Congress)

An American Dictionary of the English Language was the logical culmination of Noah Webster’s career. Prior to his lexicography, three shorter American dictionaries had appeared, but most people in the United States still depended primarily on British dictionaries, such as Samuel Johnson’s Johnson, Samuel famous work. For Webster, however, Johnson’s effort was unsatisfactory. Not only did it fail to fit American needs, but also, Webster believed, its author was frequently mistaken in etymology. Webster himself was well qualified by training and temperament to compile a dictionary. His learning was broad: He had practiced law, written about epidemic diseases, conducted laboratory experiments, and studied business conditions. He delighted in etymological investigations, and eventually learned more than twenty other languages to understand the roots and interrelationships of English. He was undoubtedly the first notable comparative philologist in the United States. Finally, Webster possessed extraordinary diligence and patience in the compilation and investigation of words.

As a Federalist through much of the period during which he was preparing the dictionary, Webster had political and social goals for his linguistic reforms. The democratization of politics and society under the Jeffersonians upset him. Believing humans to be intrinsically evil and in need of hierarchical control, Webster, like many other early nineteenth century reformers, longed to establish a “benevolent empire” that would embrace order, sobriety, and other values of an emerging middle class. Language, Webster surmised, would be an important agent in this movement, because words and phraseology modified people’s thought patterns and behavior.

Although he reveled in Americanisms, Webster worried that the expanding frontier Frontier, American;and English language[English language] regions, the areas that fueled such language additions, undercut any compact vision of order and would continually support the Jeffersonians. By codifying spelling and grammar and loading his dictionary definitions with his own euphemisms and values, Webster hoped to introduce a purity into U.S. culture that would combat what he perceived as impending chaos. Starting in 1808, when he himself became a convert to the rampant Second Great Awakening Great Awakening, Second and calmed his fears about human depravity, Webster added an evangelical fervor to his vision. Order would still be necessary to fulfill the millennial mission of the United States. The dictionary reflected his religious hopes as much as his nationalism.

In 1806, Webster launched his crusade with the publication of a Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which had five thousand more entries than were found in the best English dictionaries. The following year, he brought out an abridgment for classroom use. Another two decades remained before An American Dictionary of the English Language would come from the press. When that dictionary finally appeared in 1828, it listed seventy thousand words—twelve thousand more than the then current edition of Johnson’s Johnson, Samuel dictionary. It also included an introduction in which Webster expounded on his ideas about language and etymology. He made use of a preface to assert the parity of American English with the British standard and to defend the American statesman James Madison, jurist James Kent Kent, James , writer Washington Irving Irving, Washington , and others as authorities equal to the best British masters of the language.

Significance

Webster’s dictionary soon became the lexicographical benchmark in the United States. Webster’s own anti-British attitudes softened over time, but he continued to celebrate American achievements as rivaling those of Europe. After his death in 1843, George and Charles Merriam Merriam, George Merriam, Charles purchased the publishing rights to his lexicon. Since that time, the Merriam-Webster company and others have published many successive editions of the work, from time to time making significant revisions. Nevertheless, the name of Noah Webster remains closely identified with the campaign to validate American English that he began and boosted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the name Webster has become virtually synonymous with American dictionaries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Joseph J. After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. The best short introduction to Webster’s major contribution to American intellectual independence. Places Webster in the context of postrevolutionary cultural ebullience, along with painter Charles Willson Peale, novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and dramatist William Dunlap.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Micklethwait, David. Noah Webster and the American Dictionary. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. Examination of Webster’s life that describes his publications and the methods that influenced his creation of a new American dictionary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Richard J. Noah Webster. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Examines Webster’s use of linguistics and his role as a literary figure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rollins, Richard M. The Long Journey of Noah Webster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980. This slim but provocative treatise explores Webster’s personal traits as indices of his literary and linguistic endeavors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, Benjamin T. The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1957. Webster appears frequently in this study of literary nationalism, which is concerned primarily with the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Unger, Harlow Giles. Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Comprehensive biography, recounting Webster’s many accomplishments as a teacher, philosopher, orator, political leader, and editor as well as a lexicographer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webster, Noah. Noah Webster: On Being American—Selected Writings, 1783-1828. Edited by Homer Babbidge. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967. Provides most of the pertinent essays on Webster’s linguistic nationalism.

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