Noah Webster at 250

Robert Greenman rsgreenman at MSN.COM
Wed Oct 15 14:51:58 UTC 2008

I read a wonderful biography of Webster a few years ago that I'd like to recommend:
"Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot," by Harlow Giles Unger. A scholarly book, yet exciting, graphic, and very touching. I owe the author a fan letter. 

Webster's life was so rich and many-sided, and his influence, passions, interests and work so varied, that in this 344-page book, the author doesn't get to his dictionary work until page 265.

Bob Greenman

----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Laurence Horn<mailto:laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> 
  Sent: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 10:30 AM
  Subject: Re: Noah Webster at 250

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  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU<mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>>
  Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU<mailto:laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>>
  Subject:      Re: Noah Webster at 250

  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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