Noah Webster at 250

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Wed Oct 22 04:00:42 UTC 2008

Dennis Baron writes:

"...plow, not plough ..."

Back in the 'Forties, there was a soap-operatic, cartoon-serial
entitled _The Gumps_. One day, the Gumps were expecting as dinner
guest an English gentleman named "Plough." Confusion reigned as to how
this name might be pronounced, so that introductions would not pose an
embarrassing problem. Various solutions were proposed. I went with
"Pluff," myself. It seemed obvious.

When Mr. Plough arrived and was forced to explain to his American
hosts that his name was pronounced "Plow," exactly as spelled,
millions of Americans, including your humble correspondent, were taken
completely by surprise. My WAG is that not ten percent of the strip's
readers had any idea as to what what the point of this was. I didn't
even believe that "Plough" could be pronounced "Plow." Hence, I had
not the slightest idea WTF the strip's point was, until perhaps a
dekkid later.


On Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 10:01 AM, Dennis Baron <debaron at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Dennis Baron <debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU>
> Subject:      Noah Webster at 250
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> There's a new post on the Web of Language:
> Noah Webster at 250: a visionary or a crackpot? After all, he brought =20=
> us ax and plow, but also deef and bridegoom
> Noah Webster, America's first language patriot, was born Oct. 16, =20
> 1758. He turns 250 today (well, o.k., tomorrow, depending on when you =20=
> get this email).
> A lawyer and schoolmaster who went to Yale and fought in the =20
> Revolutionary War, Webster bought into the Enlightenment view that =20
> connected language with nation, and urged the newly-independent =20
> America to adopt its own language, a Federal English that was =20
> independent of the speech of its former masters.
> Calling for a linguistic revolution to complement the recent political =20=
> one, Webster wrote, "A national language is a band of national union. =20=
> Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country =20
> national." And he urged, "NOW is the time, and this the country, in =20
> which we may expect changes favorable to language . . . . Let us then =20=
> seize the present moment, and establish a nationallanguage, as well as =20=
> a national government."
> . . .
> Webster merged his linguistic patriotism with his need to make a =20
> living. Arguing that a newly-independent America shouldn't import its =20=
> schoolbooks from England, he began printing domestic spellers and =20
> grammars, lobbying Congress to give his textbooks a federal seal of =20
> approval. Webster apparently failed to back up these requests with =20
> under-the-table campaign contributions, but even without a =20
> Congressional endorsement, his blue-backed spellers managed to become =20=
> staples in America's classrooms for decades.
> Although his ideas about the one best way to spell changed over time, =20=
> Webster's American spelling generally meant dropping some final e's =20
> and making English writing a little more phonetic. He wroteax instead =20=
> of axe, gray for grey, and plow, not plough. He also favored what =20
> eventually became an American preference for =96er instead of the =20
> British  =96re; and instead of centre and honour. Even so,Americans =20
> still seem divided over theater and theatre, and we still see the =20
> occasional upscale shopping centre. Webster successfully bet on  jail, =20=
> mask, public and traveled instead of the Britishgaol, masque, publick, =20=
> and travelled, and American dictionaries use those forms today.
> . . .
> find out more about Noah Webster -- read the whole post: at the Web of =20=
> Language
> Dennis Baron
> Professor of English and Linguistics
> Department of English
> University of Illinois
> 608 S. Wright St.
> Urbana, IL 61801
> office: 217-244-0568
> fax: 217-333-4321
> read the Web of Language:
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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