Anniversary of the birth of Noah Webster
from the article by Steve T. Bett
Noah Webster (1758-1843), along with his contemporary Ben Franklin, advocated simplified spelling, championed "American spelling," and added such words as "skunk," "squash," "hickory," "lengthy," and "chowder" to the lexicon.
His early success in 1782 with the blue-backed spelling book earned him a steady income and the wherewithal to devote his life to the first American dictionary, published in 1806. A second enlarged edition with less radical, simplified spellings was published in 1828.
Noah started writing the first American dictionary at the age of 43, which took him over 27 years to write. He felt that Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced, and used words differently but thought that all Americans should speak the same way. He also thought that Americans should not speak and spell just like the English. In a show of patriotism typical of the early years of the new republic of the United States, Webster wanted a dictionary to record the English language as spoken on this side of the Atlantic. This was the angle that permitted Webster to throw in a few streamlined spellings of words and deviate from the standards set by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary.
Webster wanted the American language to be somewhat uniform, easy, and though he ultimately had to abandon Ben Franklin's idea of changing the spelling of 'tongue' to 'tung' and women to 'wimmen,' the lexicographer prevailed with many simplified spellings that Americans use to this day.
It is thanks to Webster that Americans have 'honor' instead of 'honour,' 'music' instead of 'musick' and 'plow' instead of 'plough.'
He also changed 'theatre' and 'centre' to the more sensible 'theater' and 'center.' Nevertheless, Webster realized that language, no matter how deplored, is irreversible, and that casual street words mingle in everyday conversation and never leave.
Webster worked out a system of diacritics to supply a guide to pronunciation and gave rules for pronunciation, hoping at best to partially standardize American speech, or at least avoid the worst excesses in England of class divisions and incomprehensible regional patois.
In 1828, at the age of 70, Noah had readied the enlarged version of his original
dictionary. His dictionary had 70,000 words and he had added, by this time,
12,000 words that had never been previously included in any dictionary of the language.
Complete with definitions, it was considered better than Samuel Johnson's 1755
English masterpiece in scope and authority. While highly praised, at $20 it was much
too costly for most American households. In 1843, two years before his death, Webster
tried a second printing at $15.