Remembering Webster, the American spelling maverick who brought us ‘honor’, ‘color’ and ‘wimmen’
October 16 marks the 260th birth anniversary of lexicographer Noah Webster, whose dictionary remains the American standard.
It’s because of Webster that Americans no longer have the superfluous “u” in words like honor, flavor and color, which still weighs on British usage. A student at Yale during the revolution, Webster believed that the new republic needed a uniquely American identity and that simplified English usage would promote national unity.
Simplification and phonetics were central. Webster’s 1783 “blue-backed speller” changed British spelling to what Americans use today. He modified “theatre” to theater, “centre” to center, “defence” became defense, and “organise” became organize. Double letters in past-tense verbs were abandoned so that “travelled” became traveled.
Watch: Emojis – the language of the internet
Webster wanted to go further, but by the 1800s Americans had tired of things revolutionary. Some of his proposals – like changing “women” to “wimmen”, “ache” to “ake”, “head” to “hed”, “tongue” to “tung” and “built” to “bilt” – languished and died. This failure could have been due to Webster’s irascible temperament and hectoring style. A fervent nationalist and Protestant, the Connecticut schoolmaster believed all Americans should speak like New Englanders, who would of course set the rules.
When his the two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language finally came out in 1828, it contained 70,000 entries, nearly twice as many as in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. After his death in 1843, the rights to Webster’s dictionary went to his publisher, George and Charles Merriam of Springfield, Massachusetts. The work endures today as the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Webster’s home in West Hartford, Connecticut, is a museum and open to the public for a modest fee.
Barry D. Wood, Washington