Blog Post

Noah Webster – The Standardization of American English


How much do you know about dictionaries? Not much you say… I’m not really interested you say? Well, I can tell you’re not an editor… lol.

How would you like to live in a world where there were no dictionaries? I can just see the look of horror on the face of my friend Deb at Deb’s Edit.

There was a time when there was no standard “right way” to spell a word.  Granted, this was a very long time ago, but imagine the confusion this could make. The introduction of a standard American dictionary helped standardize English spelling, a process that had started as early as 1473, when printer William Caxton, an English merchant, diplomat, and writer, published the first book printed in English. But this was in England.

Fast forward to the colony of the “New World”. As more and more people began to call North America their home, the English as was spoken in England began to morph and change. Along comes Noah Webster, a Yale-educated lawyer with an avid interest in language and education.

Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758, in West Hartford, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University in 1778 where he had studied law. He was unable to find work as a lawyer so he turned to another passion: teaching.

Webster taught in New York where he recognized a need for American English textbooks. Up until this time, all educational books and materials were acquired through England. But as America grew and developed as a nation, so did her language.

Words and languages are growing and ever-changing. I’m sure you can think of several words that have morphed in meaning.

Sad used to mean an object that was dull in color (gray, flax), or in a person, it meant: grave, serious, trustworthy, firm. Now it means unhappy or sorrowful.

Smug used to mean well-dressed. Now it means complacently self-righteous.

As words changed, Webster saw the need for Americans to have their own textbook and dictionary. He has been called the “Father of American Scholarship and Education”. He wrote a series of primers called the Blue-backed speller books. These books taught five generations of American children how to spell and read. The work consisted of a speller (published in 1783), a grammar (published in 1784), and a reader (published in 1785). His goal was to provide a uniquely American approach to training children. His most important improvement, in his own words, was “to rescue our native tongue from the clamor of pedantry that surrounded English grammar and pronunciation.”

Webster is most well known, however, for publishing his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Webster’s dictionary was one of the first lexicons to include distinctly American words. The dictionary took him more than two decades to complete, introduced more than 10,000 “Americanisms.” That’s a lot of words! This dictionary standardized spellings by the mid-17th century.

Words and language continue to grow and change. Words, and spellings of those words, morph with each generation. Words that we considered “slang” can now be found in dictionaries.

Lol is a new word.

Thx isn’t a new word, just a new spelling.

So we change and we grow… I can’t help but wonder what new words, and meanings for old words, will be standardized in the next generation.