Little Bits of History

Color Not Colour

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 14, 2015
Noah Webster's handwritten draft of dictionary entries

Noah Webster’s handwritten draft of dictionary entries

April 14, 1828: Noah Webster copyrights his dictionary. Webster was born in West Hartford, Connecticut on October 16, 1758. Both his parents were descendants of provincial governors. His father was a deacon in the local church, a farmer, the captain of the town’s militia, and the founder of the local book society, a precursor to modern libraries. Although his father did not receive a college education, Noah and his siblings were schooled both at home and at the local one room primary school, something the young boy hated. This early dislike prompted him to attempt educational reform in the colonies and later in the newly freed US. Noah entered Yale University just before his 16th birthday. This coincided with the Revolutionary War and many of the classes were held elsewhere. Noah also served with the Connecticut militia.

His liberal education left him with few skills and he taught school and continued his studies in law, hoping to increase his earning potential. He passed the bar in 1781 but still could not find employment as a lawyer. He opened a private school in Connecticut which was a success. He began writing as a way to increase his income. He wrote political treatises as well as his own speller, grammar book, and reader for elementary schools. These sold remarkably well and enabled the author to spend time writing his famous dictionary. His Blue-Backed Speller became a staple in American classrooms. He felt the British aristocracy had corrupted the mother tongue and set out to standardize American spelling and pronunciation.

With the work done on his speller, arranged in such a way as to help children learn, he went on to help standardize American English even further. He published his first dictionary in 1806, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It boasted an addition of 5,000 words to the number found in the best English dictionaries with a number of improvements, at least from his perspective. Even this was not good enough and the next year, he began work on an expanded work. He hoped to have a fully comprehensive book. It took him 26 years to complete An American Dictionary of the English Language. He learned 28 languages in order to help with his great opus. He wanted to standardize speech and because many different parts of the large country used different languages, they also spelled and pronounced words differently.

Webster finally completed his dictionary in 1825 while he was in Cambridge, England. His new and improved dictionary contained 70,000 words with 12,000 of them never having been included in a published dictionary prior to this. He preferred spellings to match pronunciation and while it is sometimes thought he was the author of the new spellings, he was actually just the most vocal advocate of established alternative spellings. He also included words that were quintessentially American such as skunk and squash, neither of which were part of the British vernacular. He was also a champion of copyright law and on this day, received the copyright for his book which in the first edition only sold 2,500 copies.

If the citizens neglect their duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made not for the public good so much as for the selfish or local purposes.

Language is the expression of ideas, and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas if they cannot retain an identity of language.

When the will of man is raised above law it is always tyranny and despotism, whether it is the will of a bashaw or of bastard patriots.

There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proov that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors. – all from Noah Webster

Also on this day: “I’m the King of the World!” – In 1912, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg.
Westward, Ho! – In 1846, the Donner Party began their trek west.
Black Sunday – In 1935, the dust bowl got a lot dustier.
Too Early for July Fourth – In 1944, the SS Fort Stikine exploded.
Four Dead in Five Seconds – In 1881, a shoot out took place is El Paso, Texas.

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