12/12/06 - noah webster

In today's excerpt - in 1800, Noah Webster, 'a sometime schoolteacher, failed lawyer and staggeringly successful spelling-book author', began work on an American Dictionary. He finally completed his work in 1825, and it was published in 1828:

"In June of 1800, Noah Webster's proposal for an American dictionary made national news. No news might have been better. Within a week, a Philadelphia newspaper editor called Webster's idea preposterous (it is 'perfectly absurd to talk of the American language') and his motives mercenary ('the plain truth is that he means to make money').

"Two American dictionaries, published just months before, had been badly drubbed, too. The first promised 'a number of words in vogue not found in any dictionary.' One reviewer dismissing 'sans culotte', 'hauter' and 'composuist' as,respectively, French, not even a word, and just plain silly, deemed the dictionary 'at best, useless.' No better were notices of the Massachusetts minister Caleb Alexander's 'Columbian Dictionary', containing 'many NEWWORDS, peculiar to the United States.' 'A disgusting collection' of idiotic words coined by 'presumptuous ignorance' one critic wrote, referring to Americanisms like 'wigwam', 'rateability', 'caucus' and 'lengthy' (lengthy? what's next 'strengthy'?) ... [H]e saw it as nothing more than a record of our imbecility. ...

"You might think it would be hard to top that kind of clobbering, at least without thumbing through a thesaurus for synonyms for 'worthless' and 'tripe', but Webster's critics were pretty resourceful. [Newspaper editor] Joseph Dennie said ... 'If, as Mr. Webster asserts, it is true that many new words have already crept into the language of the United States, he would be much better employed in rooting out those anxious weeds, than in mingling them with the flowers.' ...

"Their logic about Webster's proposed dictionary went something like this: Because any words new to the United States are either stupid or foreign, there is no such thing as the 'American language'; there's just bad English. ... Americans scoffed [Englishman Jonathan Boucher] were 'addicted to innovation' no less in language than in anything else. ... Federalists [agreed with this aversion to innovation and] believed ... now that an orderly government had been established, the time had come for Americans to stop making the world anew, to leave off rethinking the social order, to forswear novelty."


Jill Lepore


'Noah's Mark'


The New Yorker


November 6, 2006


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