Noah Webster at 250

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Oct 15 14:30:41 UTC 2008

At 9:01 AM -0500 10/15/08, Dennis Baron wrote:
>There's a new post on the Web of Language:
>Noah Webster at 250: a visionary or a crackpot? After all, he
>brought us ax and plow, but also deef and bridegoom
>Noah Webster, America's first language patriot, was born Oct. 16,
>1758. He turns 250 today (well, o.k., tomorrow, depending on when
>you get this email).

We're celebrating tomorrow here with a big birthday blast:

>A lawyer and schoolmaster who went to Yale and fought in the
>Revolutionary War, Webster bought into the Enlightenment view that
>connected language with nation, and urged the newly-independent
>America to adopt its own language, a Federal English that was
>independent of the speech of its former masters.
>Calling for a linguistic revolution to complement the recent
>political one, Webster wrote, "A national language is a band of
>national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people
>of this country national." And he urged, "NOW is the time, and this
>the country, in which we may expect changes favorable to language .
>. . . Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a
>nationallanguage, as well as a national government."

Nice post.  It may be worth mentioning that besides his interest in
spelling reform, Webster could be creative in his dictionary entries,
which now strike us as saying as much about his and his
contemporaries' ethnic and social judgements as about the English
lexicon.  Thus, for example, _Judaism_ is 'A temporary dispensation',
_Gipseys_ are 'a race of vagabonds which infest Europe',
_Preposterous_ is illustrated by 'A republican government in the
hands of females is preposterous')--Sarah and Hillary, take note!
There are various euphemisms sprinkled through his entries
(_Chamber-pot_ as 'a vessel used in bedrooms') and there is his
deep-seated evangelical Christianity everywhere.  Some of the entries
are innocently charming, as when Webster acknowledges a lack of
authorial omniscience in explaining _Tag_ as a game 'in which the
person gains who tags, that is, touches another. This was a common
sport among boys in Connecticut formerly, and it may be still.' (He
then goes on to cite the derivation of "tag" as evidence for the
relatedness of languages by inventing a fanciful Latin etymology.)
Then there are his attacks on  "corrupt" pronunciations, like the use
of yolk for the "proper" _yelk_, or his imaginative reconstruction of
_Yankee_ as a corruption of "English".  He was often
forward-thinking, as in his vision of "three hundred millions of
people, who are destined to occupy, and, I hope, to adorn the vast
territory within our jurisdiction"--a goal reached just last year,
IIRC.  And he was foresighted in a political sense as well--while
dispensing strong views on the importance of copyright protection
concerning his own work (and seeking legal enforcement for it),
Webster is known to have cribbed a number of his definitions from
Samuel Johnson's dictionary, thereby showing his pragmatic side.


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