How Noah Webster's Dictionary Defined American English, and His Own Views

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more from our interview with Arthur Schulman. He's compiled a book of words and definitions set forth by Noah Webster in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.

RS: "Tell us a little bit about Noah Webster, who he was and how he came about writing his dictionary."

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, he did a lot of things. He was a patriot. He was at Yale University when the [American] revolution broke out, and then he had to leave school for the revolution. He came back and finished his degree there. After the revolution, he was an early newspaperman, a columnist. And then he was a Federalist -- until his death, I think, but certainly early on, defending the revolution and a great supporter of it."

AA: "And as I understand it, he believed that the nation -- the new nation -- really needed a national language."
ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "That's right. And so he was a considerable educator. In fact, his first books were called -- there were three books, all part of what he called the Grammatical Institute, and the first one was the Speller, which continued in print until well past nineteen hundred. So that book was in print for more than a hundred years."

RS: "Did he have a problem or an issue, that all these different spellings he wanted to --

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, early on he, like [Ben] Franklin, was interested in reforming spelling and really making radical changes so that the written language could be read and sound like the spoken language. But I think everybody gave that up as an impossible job after a while. He clung to a few spelling changes that he still hoped to have last in his eighteen twenty-eight dictionary, but by that time he was no longer a spelling crusader."

RS: "And what was the product that he produced in eighteen twenty-eight."

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "In eighteen twenty-eight he produced a dictionary of seventy thousand words that he had been working on for well over twenty years -- actually, I think more like twenty-five years. And he did that because he felt very strongly that the country needed a dictionary to reflect the language that existed here, which was no longer exactly the same as the language that existed in the home country, or England."

AA: "Can you give us two or three examples?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, I'll give you an example of a word that's changed its meaning. The word 'empiricism' meant back in Webster's time the practice of medicine without a medical education -- quackery is what it meant. 'The pretensions of an ignorant man to medical skill.' And now what we mean by empiricism is the attention to the way the world is, recording what we observe."

AA: "Evidence."


AA: "What's another example?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, I can give you examples of things that he didn't catch, for example, because they were too new or they hadn't really come into the language yet. For example, 'browse,' in the sense of skimming through a book, reading passages that catch the eye. That's the way we use browse mostly these days. And in his time it still meant the literal sense of grazing, as a cow would graze in a field.

"He had a hard time marketing the book. He was going door-to-door trying to sell it. And it was an expensive pair of volumes when it came out. The dictionary then went into a second edition that he was largely responsible for. And then it was taken over by the Merriam company. So it became Merriam-Webster, and we've had Merriam-Webster with us ever since."

RS: "And what does this dictionary tell us about the American character -- who were we as Americans in eighteen twenty-eight?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "Well, it tells us a lot about Webster's character. He was a great moralist. His moralism pervades the definitions throughout the book. He tells us how to behave. He tells us what's right. He tells us that we should educate our children. He tells us that slavery is evil. He tells us all kinds of things and these things work their way into many, many definitions.

"He tells us that 'Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes.' He will quote from Franklin, from [George] Washington, from John Adams, from the Federalist Papers whenever he can."

RS: "Any quotes from women?"

ARTHUR SCHULMAN: "No. And what is more striking is that there are no quotes from Jefferson, because he was really on the outs with Jefferson. Jefferson was a deist and Webster couldn't stand deism. It was a denial of revelation."

AA: Arthur Schulman's book is called "Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English." For more about Noah Webster, go to And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.