October 16 will mark the 260th birthday of lexicographer Noah Webster, whose dictionary remains the American standard.
Because of Webster, we are no longer burdened with the superfluous “u” in words like honor, flavor, and color that still weigh upon British usage. A student at Yale while the revolution raged, Webster argued that independence required a unique American identity. Simplified spelling was one way to achieve it.
Webster’s 1788 “Blue-Backed Speller” changed British usage to the phonetic spellings we use today. “Theatre” became theater, “centre” became center, “defence” became defense, and “organise” became organize. Double letters in past-tense verbs were also abandoned so that “travelled” became traveled.
Webster wanted to go further, but by the 1800s, Americans had tired of revolution. His sensible proposals to change “women” to wimmen, “ache” to ake, “head” to hed, “young” to yung, and “built” to bilt — all failed to catch on.
America had also tired of Webster. His temperament was irascible and hectoring. A fervent Protestant nationalist, the Connecticut schoolmaster believed all Americans should speak like New Englanders, who of course would set the rules.
And so Webster turned his attention to his dictionary, which took decades to write. When it finally came out in 1828 it contained 70,000 entries — 12,000 more than the 1755 dictionary of his London nemesis Samuel Johnson.
Noah Webster (no relation to Daniel Webster) was a vociferous opponent of slavery, a forceful advocate for copyright protection for authors, and a founder of Amherst College.
His crusade for American identity extended to what should be studied in schools. The prevailing British historical pantheon was to be rejected in favor of laudatory entries of American patriots — Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Marshall.
“This country,” he wrote in 1783, “must in some future time be as distinguished by the superiority of her literary improvements, as she is already for the liberality of her civil and ecclesiastical constitutions.”
A friend of Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster was received by George Washington at Mount Vernon. A rigid federalist, Webster favored “a supreme power at the head of the union, vested with authority to make laws that respect the states in general and to compel obedience to those laws.” Liberty, he argued, could be preserved only through the strength that comes of unity.
On women’s rights Webster was retrograde and prudish. Certain passages in the Bible were too coarse for female ears, in his opinion. Girls should be allowed only basic education, enough to properly rear children but no more.
Upon publication of his dictionary Webster was hailed as a distinguished man of letters. He called before Congress to speak in favor of a strengthened copyright law that was under consideration. Afterward he was hosted at a White House dinner by President Andrew Jackson, a populist Democrat with whom he had little in common.
After his death in 1843, the rights to Webster’s dictionary went to his publisher, George and Charles Merriam of Springfield, Mass. The work endures today as the Merriam Webster dictionary.
Despite his shortcomings, we’re better off because of Noah Webster’s spelling reforms. It’s a pity he couldn’t go further.