Spell Check: How a ‘Linguistic Nazi’ Founded American Culture

| September 4, 2012

If your first association with the name Webster is Emmanuel Lewis or a music venue in New York City’s East Village, you might be interested to know that the other Webster was not just the guy who published the American Dictionary of the English Language. He was also one of America’s tragically unsung Founding Fathers.

Given the scrappy state of Post-Revolutionary America, it’s somewhat poetic that the first American-English dictionary was a flop. Published by the Connecticut lexicographer Noah Webster in 1828, the book sold only 2,500 copies in its first printing. Most Americans saw no need to be bothered with it. After all, readers in the young nation already had the Dictionary of the English Language, which was first published sixty-three years earlier by the British literary giant Samuel Johnson and was widely accepted as the canonical lexicon of the language. Granted, grammar-conscious Yanks had to put up with such silly spelling preferences as colour, centre, and musick, but most folks reasoned at the time that such standards were acceptable by virtue of tradition. If they were good enough for the Brits, what right did we feeble Americans have to question them?

Webster did question them, however. He favored spelling choices that not only made sense, but also reflected what had become distinctly American dialects—thus waggon became wagon and draught became draft. The book also introduced words unique to American life, such as skunk and squash, which had not been included in previous dictionaries. And yet, to Americans of the time, the whole thing was one big meh.

But Webster, just shy of seventy when he published the dictionary, was not about to be defeated by grammatical apathy and lackluster sales. A Yale-educated entrepreneur who came of age during the Revolutionary War, he was American not just in name but in spirit. His dictionary, however shunned, was the result of more than two decades’ worth of laborious research. While he was compiling its 70,000 entries, he learned twenty-six different languages in an effort to master the etymological underpinnings of his native tongue (which, by the way, he thought should be spelled tung). The American Dictionary was Webster’s magnum opus, his swan song, and he was not about to let it be overshadowed by a scrunchy-faced Englishman who had been dead for more than forty years.

But it wasn’t just petty rivalry that motivated Webster. A reformist in the purest sense of the word, Webster believed that adopting a unified American language was vital to the collective consciousness of the young nation. He was determined to either usher in that new language or die trying, and so the lexicographer committed himself to publishing a second edition of his failed American dictionary. Sure, he had to mortgage his home and pretty much go into debt for the rest of his life in order to see the task through, but for Webster, the dictionary meant more than just choosing the word “cookie” over “biscuit” or preferring “garbage” to “rubbish.” It meant solidifying a national identity for a nation that was still very much in the midst of an identity crisis. Were we a real country or a scattershot collection of colonies? Webster knew that the answer resided not in boundaries and borders, but in words.

Webster published a second, expanded edition of his dictionary in 1841, but much to his disappointment, the book still failed to catch on. Now in his eighties, the lexicographer died two years later under a pile of mounting debt. It was that same year that two brothers named George and Charles Merriam bought up all the unsold copies of the dictionary and secured the publishing rights. The brothers published a new version in 1847 under the title Webster’s Dictionary. The book sold for six bucks and, by then, was beginning to earn a reputation as the go-to guide for American wordsmiths. It even earned kudos from such prominent figures as President James Polk and General Zachary Taylor. Webster’s Dictionary, as we all know, has since become the last word in American English, (It wasn’t until 1982 that the title was changed to Merriam-Webster as a way of differentiating from other dictionary knockoffs that use the Webster name), and it’s all thanks to a tenacious Connecticut Yankee who couldn’t accept the backward logic that traveler should have two L’s.

As a writer and editor who fetishises the minuscule details of grammar and style, I’ve always said that no one can botch the English language quite like an English writer. The British have long earned praise for their contributions to world literature, and with good reason. From Shakespeare and Blake, to Austen and Yeats, all the way to Dickens and Orwell, English writers have put to paper some of the greatest combinations of words ever conceived. And yet, even as we discover and rediscover the wealth of phenomenal writing by British authors, we American grammarians are nevertheless haunted by the endless parade of dangling participles, commas outside of quotation marks, and other foibles proffered by the reckless dictates of British style guides. To us, Noah Webster is the watershed figure of American’s second great revolution. He is literature’s George Washington, a man who freed us not from the tyranny of English rule, but from the folly of English spelling.

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Category: Analyze, Featured

About the Author ()

Christopher Zara is a media and culture reporter for the International Business Times. His first book, Tortured Artists, was published by Adams Media this spring.

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  1. Richard says:

    I love this. I’m a writer and a patriotic American and I had no idea.