He was from Connecticut and was tall and thin. He graduated from Yale, and he carried a musket once as a Revolutionary War militia man. He was known as America’s schoolmaster largely because of his speller, a little book that taught generations of Americans how to read and write. He was a confidant of General George Washington, among the first to realize that a shared culture and language could help weld the citizens of the fractious states into a single great nation, and he repeatedly urged his countrymen to think of themselves first as Americans and only second as citizens of any one state. And he was a critic of the Articles of Confederation, the weak central government adopted by the states immediately after the Revolution. Yet late in life he so soured on democracy that he was able to write that “[i]t would be better for the people, they would be more free and more happy, if all were deprived of the right of suffrage until they were 45 years of age, and if no man was eligible to an important government office until he is 50, that is, if all powers of government were vested in our old men.”
Still, we remember him best for his dictionary, Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language. In fact, so thoroughly have we Americans identified dictionaries with Noah Webster that almost everyone who publishes a dictionary nowadays (and it’s been like this for years) wants to have the Webster name in the title. And they have been able to use the name since 1889, the year the Merriam Company’s copyright, purchased in 1843, shortly after Webster’s death, expired.
He was a very intelligent and diligent man, a hard worker, a good husband and father (though a bit of a tyrant) and a fervent Christian. (In fact, he brought his Christianity so often into his definitions that he outraged Ambrose Bierce, who began to satirize what he saw as Webster’s self-righteousness in his Devil’s Dictionary definitions.) In lexicography, he was a real egalitarian, hewing to the notion that the language is and ought to be what the people speak. He was, in modern terms, more of a describer than a prescriber.
It’s hard for us to realize the opposition Webster encountered when he announced his great project. One wit poked fun of Webster’s idea that an American replacement for Samuel Johnson’s great English dictionary (1755) by creating letters from the public: “by rading all ovur the nusspaper I find you are after meaking a nue Merrykin Dikshunary; your rite, Sir; for ofter looking all over the anglish Books, you won’t find a bit Shillaly big enuf to beat a dog wid.”
In the end, though, Webster had the last laugh. The prescriptionists, if not defeated, at least agreed to accept that the new things and new ideas of the new nation had a place in an American dictionary, and Webster retired, a wealthy man, secure in knowledge of and satisfaction with his great accomplishment.
See the dictionary online at http://1828.mshaffer.com/
Joshua Kendall may be found at http://joshuackendall.com/