From Colour to Color

Last week I wrote about the Spelling Bee in America and how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the official reference for spellings for this prestigious competition. The challenge for participants in the competition is to know the spellings and meanings of the 7000+ words in the dictionary. But how many know the story about the man behind those words—Noah Webster?

This story begins on a farm in West Hartford, Connecticut where Noah Webster was born on October 16 1758, a time when America still belonged to England. His father farmed the land, and from the time Noah was a young boy, he helped out with agricultural chores; but his mind was restless and he was eager to use it in different ways. Having taken in all that the local school had to offer, and encouraged by his teachers, Noah, aged 16, entered Yale, one of the best colleges in the country then. His father took a loan on the farm to support his education. But when he graduated, his father gave Noah eight dollars and told him that henceforth he was on his own.

The 19 year-old graduate, with a farm loan to pay back, needed to start earning immediately; so he started teaching in a school. The conditions were pathetic.  . Children of all ages were crammed into one-room schoolhouses with no desks or basic supplies, untrained teachers, and a few old school books from England which pledged allegiance to King George. This was also a time when the east coast of America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War against the British. Noah strongly felt that his students should be learning about their own country from American textbooks, in a vocabulary that they identified better with.

In October 1781 after King George’s soldiers were defeated, Americans effectively won their independence. And Noah Webster decided that “I will write the second Declaration of Independence. An American spelling book.”

Noah felt that there was no reason why the newly independent people should continue to spell the way they did in England, where words were often spelt very differently from the way they sounded phonetically. Also within America itself the same word was often spelt in different ways (mosquito, moskito, miscitoe, misqutor, muskeetor…). Noah felt that Americans should spell every word in the same way, every time, everywhere. He felt that this would lead to creating a true United States of America.   

For two years, Noah taught school all day and worked at night on this dream textbook. In 1783 he published this under the title A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. He wanted that his “speller” should look different from other books on the shelves and told his printers to put a blue cover on it. And that is what the book became popularly known as–The Blue-Back Speller. The book not only taught spelling, but also listed important American dates, towns and states. Noah Webster had created the first American textbook! For over 100 years, Webster’s book taught children in America to read, spell and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time, selling nearly 100 million copies. But Noah did not mint money from its sales—while originally the book cost 14 cents, he received one penny for each copy sold, the rest went to the printer.

At the time Samuel Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary of the English Language, introduced by the British, was considered the authoritative English language resource by most Americans. But there was a section of the population that wanted its own national dictionary for the newly declared free states of America. In 1806 Noah Webster took the first step towards this when he published A Compendious Dictionary of the American Language which had 40,600 words.

But he was not satisfied; he continued to work on this project with the aim of creating a reference that would overthrow Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. To accomplish this, Webster learned to read and understand more than 20 languages including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Welsh; and he travelled to France and England to research early dictionaries and books on the origins of words and language.

Noah Webster embarked on this project in 1807, and was still working on it 17 years later. At that point he felt he needed to refer still more books and visit more libraries, so in 1824 he set sail for Europe. He completed his magnum opus by penning the last word Zygomatic, in a shaky hand, in 1825. He then meticulously proof read the two thousand pages that he had complied over 20 years.

Noah was 70 years old when the first edition was printed in 1828 under the title An American Dictionary of the English Language.  It included 70,000 words, definitions, and explanations of words’ origins. In doing so, Noah Webster also created a lexicon of “American” words and spellings.

The idea of reforming spelling had taken hold of him as early as 1789 when he had written in an essay: The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.”

It took several decades for these early ideas to fructify. In his dictionary Noah Webster did simplify the original English spellings, he took out excess letters, like the ‘u’ in colour and honour, the extra ‘l’ in traveler, the ‘e’ on ax and the ‘ough’ in plow. He also reversed the ‘re’ in theater and center and the ‘k’ in musick. He introduced new words from different sources. From Native Americans came words like wampum, moccasin, canoe, moose, toboggan and maize; from Mexico came hoosegow, stampede and cafeteria; from the French came prairie and dime, while cookie and landscape came from the Dutch. Existing words were combined to make new ones, for example, rattlesnake, eggplant and bullfrog. He also added American words that weren’t in English dictionaries like skunk and squash. Only some of the changes that he wanted didn’t make it, like bred for bread, wimmen for women, dawter for daughter and tung for tongue!

Noah Webster accomplished much more than compiling and creating words. Not only did he fight for an American language, he also fought for copyright laws, a strong federal government, universal education, and the abolition of slavery. In the 1780s he pioneered one of the first workmen’s compensation insurance programmes and helped found the antislavery group the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. In between fighting for these causes, he wrote textbooks, edited magazines and worked to advance copyright laws. He went on a national lecture tour and wrote numerous essays promoting education reform and other cultural concerns. He helped found Amherst college, and helped to establish the Federalist newspaper The American Minerva.

Webster had his idiosyncrasies. He counted houses and churches when he travelled through towns, recording his findings in his diary. While travelling across the American territories in 1785 and 1786, he tallied 20,380 houses in 22 cities.  He kept records of practically everything he did and made copious notes in the margins of anything he read. He assumed that every word he wrote would be interesting to someone in the future. He kept copies of letters he wrote to public figures and even kept their replies. By the time he was in his 70s, he had volumes of notes, letters, essays, and diaries that he stored and saved. These he willed to his son-in-law!

When Noah Webster died in 1843, he was an American hero.

In 1847 (four years after his death), George and Charles Merriam gained the rights to Webster’s work and published their first edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Noah Webster’s was a pioneer in many fields, but his name will always be synonymous with the Webster’s Dictionary.

–Mamata

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