Among my most treasured books is Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. I remember sacrificing so that we could purchase it for our home while our children were still young. It is large, cumbersome and I pull it off the shelf often. The definition of words is powerful and understanding the words we use helps us to clarify our thoughts and our values. Learning to use a dictionary, is the first key to teaching children the basics of research—a tool they will use throughout their education. And it nurtures their ability to reason.
Even in Noah Webster’s day there were several highly respected and credible dictionaries produced in England. So why an “American Dictionary?” One consideration was the American form of government was unique, giving rise to a change in the meanings of words. America wasn’t a feudal system with serfs or barons. Words such as free, liberty, sovereignty, property and providence had Godly, republican meanings in America. Here the king was not sovereign. God was America’s king and the people were the sovereigns who were nevertheless submissive to the laws of God and nature. Also, in America, the people owned the land. “Property” was a sacred right.
Noah Webster stated, “Let Englishmen notice that when I speak of American yeomanry, the latter are not to be compared to the illiterate peasantry of their own country. The Yeomanry of this country consists of substantial independent freeholders, masters of their own persons and Lords of their own soil. These men have considerable education.”
Webster gave 27 years of his life to his work on the Dictionary. He began by a study of languages. By 1807 he had mastered twelve languages. By 1813 he had learned twenty different languages. “In the second story of his new home, in a large room, with windows looking to the south and east, Webster set up anew the large circular table which he had used for some years at New Haven,” wrote Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford, granddaughter of Noah Webster. “This table was about two feet wide, built in the form of a hollow circle. Dictionaries and grammars of all obtainable languages were laid in successive order upon its surface. Webster would take the word under investigation, and standing at the right end of the lexicographer’s table, look it up in the first dictionary which lay at that end. He took each word through the twenty or thirty dictionaries, [from the many languages] making notes of his discoveries, and passing around his table many times in the course of a day’s labor of minute and careful study. This was comparative philology which has given such great results to modern philologists.”
Besides the extensive research into the etymologies of the words, Webster founded the meanings in Biblical usage as well as giving predominately biblical quotes to reinforce definitions. Consider the definition of Marriage: ”Marriage is a contract both civil and religious, by which the parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity. . . Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children.”
Webster wrote, “I am particularly affected by a sense of my ingratitude to that Being who made me and without whose constant agency I cannot draw a breath, who has showered upon me a profusion of temporal blessings and provided a Savior for my immortal soul.”
Noah Webster’s book contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before. As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary introduced American English spellings, replacing “colour” with “color”, substituting “wagon” for “waggon”, and printing “center” instead of “centre”. He also added American words, like “skunk” and “squash” that did not appear in British dictionaries. At the age of seventy, Webster published his dictionary in 1828.”