If you had the opportunity to watch the cartoon in my recent post, Symphony in Slang, you may have noticed that Saint Peter asked Noah Webster to help him decipher a newcomer's language which he wasn't able to understand. In case some of my followers do not know much about Lexicography, I have the pleasure to share with them today some brief notes on this great American Lexicographer:
Noah Webster was born on October 16th,
West Hartford, Connecticut. He worked on his father’s farm until he
was fourteen, then he attended local school, and in 1774 he entered Yale, where
he learnt Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and graduated when he was 20.
He then went into teaching and to remedy the deficiencies he had noticed in his students he wrote his first work: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. It consisted of three parts: a spelling book, a grammar and a reader. The spelling book was a great success, and re-titled Elementary Spelling Book, it was adopted as a universal textbook in American schools. Called ‘the blue-backed speller’, it sold more than 30.000.000 copies.
He wanted to reform American spelling, and he’s responsible for the exclusion of some superfluous letters, for instance the ‘u’ in words ending in ‘our’: colour, favour, honour, etc. became in American spelling color, favor, honor, etc.
His first full-scale lexicographic work is Compendious Dictionary of the English Dictionary, published in 1806. It contained 40.600 headwords.
In 1810, Webster announced his project to make an all-American dictionary in his Prospectus of a New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language. The Dictionary, titled American Dictionary of the English Language was published in
1828 in two volumes, with
70.000 headwords. Webster’s Dictionary has been criticized, especially his
etymologies. His many errors sprang mainly from his strong religious
convictions (he did not question anything the Bible says) and from his
ignorance of Anglo-Saxon, the language which really is at the root of so many
English words. Fortunately, his etymologies were put right in 1864, thanks to
the German scholar C.A.F. Mahn, who had been commissioned by G & C Merriam,
Webster’s dictionaries publishing company.
Webster died on May 28th, 1843, aged 84.
Webster’s Dictionary, duly updated, is still published in America, where the name Webster is synonymous with dictionary.