Word Matters Podcast

Who was this Webster guy, anyway?

Word Matters, Episode 53

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Dictionary writer. Spelling reformer. Lovable crank?

Meet our ancestor—and the father of American English—Noah Webster.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: just who was Noah Webster? I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

Try to imagine, if you will, the entirety of the English language. Every noun, verb, adverb, preposition. Now imagine being the kind of person who says, I think I'll catalog all of this on my own. That, my friends, is what Noah Webster did. Today we're going to talk about our lexicographical progenitor and his quest to capture a new American English.

I think every Merriam-Webster editor has at one point or another, been assigned to reply to someone who is asking just who Merriam is in the company's name Merriam-Webster, who is this mysterious Miriam woman? I know who Webster is, but who is Miriam? And the answer of course is that she is no woman. She is actually a pair of brothers.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a family name. We sometimes even get letters addressed to Miriam Webster with an I or a Y even. The family name is spelled with an E, Merriam. We say Miriam, but it's easily misheard. And also because of the name of the company is a double barreled name and the first name seems like a first name and Webster is obviously the last name. So it's an easy mistake to understand, but in fact, it's a family name and I usually try to explain that there's a reason that the two names are together and that's that Webster was the author and the Merriams were the printers. And so there's a shared relationship. They both played a part, but there's a big story. There's a lot of history there.

Emily Brewster: We should start off with the history that is probably more familiar to people. It's a history that we've alluded to on the show, mentioned a number of times, and that is where the Webster part comes from. Merriam-Webster gets its name from, the Webster part is from Noah Webster, who was the first American lexicographer and he was also the last individual to single-handedly write an entire dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: There may be others, but he was certainly the most famous, also a name that has come to personify dictionary-making in North America.

Emily Brewster: What was his date of birth? Do you remember?

Peter Sokolowski: He was born in 1758 and the reason it's easy to remember from my perspective is that he turned 18 in 1776. And I just think that's significant because what you're passionate about when you're 18 is often something that drives your life. And he was absolutely passionate about politics. So that's not exactly a straight line to dictionary writing, but that was one of his passions throughout his life.

Emily Brewster: But it actually is tied to his dictionary writings because he was very passionate about American English as its own particular form of English.

Peter Sokolowski: And that was new. That was in a sense revolutionary all by itself.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: He was very politically aware, politically active. He was a personal friend or acquaintance to people like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. To some extent the Harvard professor and The New Yorker writer Jill Lepore refers to Noah Webster, and she's a scholar of the 18th century, she says, he's not a founding father, he's sort of a founding uncle because he was very much present and he was a political pamphleteer. He campaigned for the Constitution's ratification. There are lots of things that he was involved with. He asked George Washington to be the official biographer of the first president and Washington refused. Washington said, no, I don't want an official biographer. It shows you also that Webster knew that the story of Washington or the myth of Washington, creating that story was going to be an incredibly powerful piece of writing and part of history. And it turns out he'd found his way to those goals, but with his dictionary, not with a biography of Washington. I just think that's sort of fascinating that they came so close together at that time.

Emily Brewster: Right, I didn't realize that he had asked if he could be Washington's biographer. It's a little bold and he was a bold man.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, he was. He was absolutely. And you had to be in those days. The letter writing was ferocious. You know, when you think of the letters written by all of those founding fathers, they're all men for the most part. Letters of Jefferson and Adams, they're incredibly voluminous and Benjamin Franklin wrote letters constantly and Webster did too. And so that leaves a record of their thoughts and their passions too. So that's kind of interesting, but certainly one of his passions was also education. And Webster was born to sort of gentry. One of his great grandfathers had been governor of the colony of Connecticut. Born in West Hartford and he went to Yale as did the boys of that social class.

Emily Brewster: But he was not born wealthy.

Peter Sokolowski: No, no, the money had gone, so there was genteel poverty. They were gentlemen farmers, but there was no money. Yeah, that's absolutely true. And because of that, he did, I always make this as a joke, he did what people who want to make lots of money fast do, he became a teacher. And he taught school children and he then wrote his own textbooks. And I think that's really an important point.

Emily Brewster: And he was a much better writer, I think, than he was a teacher. He was a miserable teacher. He did not like teaching. And from everything we know about his personality and his abrasiveness, it is very likely that everyone was better off when he became more of a writer than a teacher.

Peter Sokolowski: That's probably true. And also think of that moment, probably a lot of the textbooks were essentially English or British and there was a real separation, culturally as well as politically, at that moment. So he had this window of opportunity in which to create his own materials. And he wrote these little textbooks to teach reading and writing and spelling. They were little paperbacks of the day starting in 1783. So they really come along right about the time of the revolution and they had a blue cover so they're often referred to as the Blue Back or Blue-backed Speller. And that became an enormously successful book. And that's the book that gave him a reputation as an expert on education and especially on language.

Emily Brewster: Sometimes people confuse Noah Webster with Daniel Webster, who happened to be Noah Webster's cousin. And he was a 19th-century American statesman, he was a lawyer, he argued many, many cases in front of the Supreme Court. And I think it was, what 1936, a writer named Stephen Vincent Benet published a story called "The Devil and Daniel Webster." And there's something about that story, which later was turned into a film that has solidified the name, Daniel Webster in people's minds, but they are not to be confused. Noah Webster did use his familial relationship with Daniel Webster to try to move forward some of his copyright legislation that he wanted to get passed, but there are two distinct people and Noah's the one we're related to.

Peter Sokolowski: And it has to be said, they were sometimes conflated or confused even in their lifetimes. And that I think that really rankled Noah Webster to be confused for Daniel Webster. And it still happens.

Emily Brewster: You talk about it being this window of opportunity, this time of the nation coming into its own and trying to get its bearing. And there was really a tension there also, there was this great reverence for British English and for British politics and for British fashions and right, there is still this veneration for the old land.

Peter Sokolowski: And the traditions, think about what language is. Language is a habit. And so the cultivated habit of cultured people, of educated people at that time was entirely understood in the Oxford and Cambridge way and the London publishing scene. So it was in some ways, a little bit radical to say we've had a political separation, we should also have a linguistic separation and that was not universally admired.

Emily Brewster: That's right, but Noah felt really strongly about this. And he was passionate about dictionary-making as a nationalistic project.

Peter Sokolowski: As a nation-building, identity-building project. And so he wrote, from the textbooks, he made a little dictionary, which is often referred to as America's first dictionary. There were in fact a couple of other dictionaries that were printed at least in America before 1806, but 1806 is this important date for us as dictionary-makers, especially as people making dictionaries in the Webster tradition, that was his first dictionary and he called it A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. And it's interesting that he would use that word compendious, which is a word that I think has completely fallen out of the language to me also, it sounds like it means the opposite of what it actually means. Compendious sounds like it means very large.

Emily Brewster: Right, it sounds like it means comprehensive.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it actually means very short, very brief. And it was indeed a very brief dictionary in some ways, I think also in a sense, trained him as a definer because most of those definitions are three or four or five words. They're really, really short and that's a skill that has to be cultivated. And I think this is where he did it, but there's another important part of that particular dictionary which is, that this is where he made his declaration of cultural independence, which is to say that he established a lot of the spelling conventions that he advocated, many of which were not the conventions of British English. And those are the things that we recognize to a very great extent as American English today.

Emily Brewster: You're talking about color without the U, favor without the U, canceled with one L instead of two.

Peter Sokolowski: So Webster was marrying politics and culture, but also phonetics and logic. Now, when you enter logic, you're entering the danger zone in terms of English spelling, because English spelling isn't logical, but he tried to apply a certain amount of logic. So he thought that the U's in those words, color, honor, humor were silent. So he didn't like silent letters, he didn't like double letters because they ended up being silent. So the convention in American English is not to double those inflections of verbs, like travel or cancel, and yet in British English to this day they still do. These things we recognize, he noticed that the voiced S in a word like analyze or civilization should be represented by the letter Z, which is itself just a voiced S, so if you say the letter S and then hum, you have a Z. S that's the Z. So he respelled those words and a few other conventions that you would recognize. I think the terminal K, the letter K at the end of words like public and music.

Emily Brewster: Also a word like draught. D-R-A-U-G-H-T.

Peter Sokolowski: Or plough. P-L-O-U-G-H.

Emily Brewster: And plough, he changed that also.

Peter Sokolowski: And so, yeah, those are all conventions that I think we recognize without even thinking about it today. And these were among the spelling changes that he advocated without question. Webster must have been the most successful spelling reformer in the history of the English language.

Emily Brewster: And there certainly were others.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, many have tried but basically what I sometimes think about as a thought experiment is to think, you try respelling a word because you're going to be told that it's wrong.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more of the story of Noah Webster and his dictionaries. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Peter Sokolowski: He chose that moment where there wasn't a lot of commerce, there were maybe fewer dictionaries in schools and things at that moment and printers were looking to find authoritative sources. And so he had that window to establish his influence among people such as printers and especially other textbook writers.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, platform is power.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it turns out that McGuffey Reader, for example, the McGuffey Readers, which were another set of textbooks, were strong endorsers of the Webster spelling system. And that might have been as important as anything else, because if so many children are educated with this set of spelling, then it's just one generation later that set of spelling becomes standard.

Emily Brewster: That's right, because it looks right.

Peter Sokolowski: It looks right to you.

Emily Brewster: And that's how you spell a word. You spell a word the way it looks right.

Peter Sokolowski: Language is a habit. And so he's a fascinating figure. The other little footnote that we have to add is that there were some spellings that he advocated for that were not successful. He wanted the word tongue to be spelled T-U-N-G. He thought women should be W-I-M-M-I-N, I believe, which were phonetic. You can understand the phonetic reasons for those, but they didn't take.

Emily Brewster: But he didn't put all of those in his 1806 dictionary or in his 1828 dictionary. Some of these were spellings that he advocated for but he was a very principled lexicographer in that he did not use his dictionaries to push the most radical of these. He chose the spelling reformations that he thought were likely to catch on, that probably had some currency. He was not choosing things that people had not seen before.

Peter Sokolowski: Right because people wouldn't be able to read them, also as the way you and I understand lexicography is evidence-based and there may be a lack of evidence for some of these. Now, the fact is a lot of these spelling variations were in the ether, but you could I'm sure find many publications in London with only one L in canceled, for example, because there was so little standardization up to this point. However, he advocated for certain of them. And also he was reasonable. And his later dictionary, the bigger one called An American dictionary of the English Language. And that's the one in 1828 that really cemented his reputation. It's the one that people refer to traditionally as Webster's dictionary.

Emily Brewster: And that one is available online, published by a company that is not Merriam-Webster because we don't own the rights to that dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: And nobody does.

Emily Brewster: Nobody does.

Peter Sokolowski: That's public domain.

Emily Brewster: That's public domain and so that particular dictionary is set in digital stone.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it's at webstersdictionary1828.com. And it's a terrific online resource to look up the original wording of definitions in Webster's dictionary. I use it all the time.

Emily Brewster: Now we've talked about his spelling, but we should also talk about the very words that he actually chose to include because in his 1806 dictionary, and again, in his later dictionaries, he was including words that were new to the English language because they were continent specific. These were words that English speakers had learned from Algonquin, from other native languages spoken by the indigenous people.

Peter Sokolowski: Words like skunk.

Emily Brewster: Hickory, I think was one.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, hickory. And these are from Native American languages so of course they wouldn't have been found in England. And there are other new words that he introduced, the word psychology as an English word, it had been a German word. It's obviously based on a Greek model, but he brought that into English for the first time. And also the word immigrant was first in an English language dictionary in Webster's dictionary, also the word whiskey. And that made me think, how on earth is it possible that Samuel Johnson didn't have whiskey in his dictionary, it turns out whiskey was a relatively new word. It probably was a word Johnson knew to speak or to understand, but not a word that was written or used, for example, in Shakespeare.

Emily Brewster: He didn't find it in the poetry of John Dunn.

Peter Sokolowski: Right and Johnson's dictionary was very much based on a literary study of the English language.

Emily Brewster: It really does make me question what Johnson actually did drink. I really would have thought that he was a whiskey drinker.

Peter Sokolowski: He probably was.

Emily Brewster: But it's very surprising that he didn't include the word whiskey.

Peter Sokolowski: And poignantly two words that Webster introduced the words, terrorism and feminism. Those were both words that at the end of his life, he added as the new word section of his dictionary in 1841, he dies in 1843. He added those two terms, terrorism, which of course had come from the French Revolution and initially referred to a kind of terror perpetrated by a government. And then by the early 1800s, by 1820s, it had flipped and became violence perpetrated against the government. So that's an interesting path that word took.

And the word feminism, Webster defined, he wouldn't have understood it the way we understand it today, for him feminism was simply a synonym of the word femininity. And so it's an interesting point.

Emily Brewster: The feminine nature.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, exactly. And so you can squint and see that. And if you saw the word used that way, you'd understand it, but that's not the way we think of it today.

Emily Brewster: That's right, the word has shifted in its meaning. Now Webster never stopped producing anything and he wrote lots and lots of different things besides just dictionaries, but his dictionaries are what he is remembered for. His final dictionary was, I think a revision of his 1841 revision of the 1828.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right and this is an important point too. Dictionary publishing is hard. It's something that I think about a lot, which is to say that in the early days of printing presses, say in Shakespeare's day, when they were sometimes printing leaflets or plays before longform books were a common household item, it was really hard to print a dictionary because you have to set and type every single letter of every single page. And then originally you'd print a number of pages and then set the next page and think of how long it would take and how dangerous it was to store those early pages while you're printing the later ones.

Emily Brewster: It's so painful to imagine.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it's really tough. So the fact is he had a lot of those pages that had been printed and some of them maybe 15 years earlier, and he was still using them and adding addendum material to the front of the dictionary, which is something that publishers still do. But for him, I'm sure he had in his basement stacks of these things, and that is exactly the way he left them when he died, so there were unbound copies of that last revision. When he died, the rights to sell the book went to this bookseller, this neighbor of his, someone he knew, the Adams family. They had problems selling the book. The fact is it has to be said, Webster was an important scholar, a great lexicographer, but he was not a great businessman. And so his dictionary cost $20 in 1828, which was a huge amount of money, it was a luxury item and his successor reduced the price to $15, which was still a lot of money in 1841, 42. Dictionary publishing was a tricky business, so tricky that it was not attractive to everyone. And this is where the Merriams enter the picture.

Emily Brewster: On the next Word Matters, we'll have the story of the Merriam brothers. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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