Eating America’s Homework

My husband tells a story of one of his favorite college professors, a British gentlemen teaching at an American university, who, while assigning a paper, reminded his students that, “English is a borrowed language and [he expected] it to be returned undamaged.” The class laughed, and most likely the professor only meant to remind the students that careful editing would be appreciated as he was going to have to read whatever drivel they turned in. But just in case, my husband made sure to incorporate words such as “colour” and “centre” into his work. It was appreciated.

The story is a happy memory because this pseudo-requirement to use the Queen’s English was just one funny moment, and perhaps an extra challenge thrown down, in the midst of a really positive classroom experience.

The word “webster” in Middle English refers to a female weaver. Noah did not include this definition in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. In today’s Urban Dictionary, “Webster” is listed as a reference to a dictionary. Well played, Mr. Webster. Well played.

But I suspect Noah Webster, born 256 years ago today, wouldn’t have seen it the same way. In 1779, Webster was a young teacher in the early days of a new nation at a time when few children attended school beyond the age of ten or eleven. The schools generally consisted of a single room and served sometimes as many as seventy children with only one teacher. When text books were available, they were British, containing lessons on the geography of England, and even professions of allegiance to King George.

Webster decided to write his own text books, beginning with an age-levelled speller that rejected what he called “the clamour of pedantry” that resulted from the language of the British aristocracy, insisting that American language shouldn’t develop from studies of Greek and Latin, but rather, from the way it is used by the American people.

So with that in mind after writing a few good old ‘Merican text books, Webster decided to tackle a good old ‘Merican dictionary. 22 years and 70,000 words later, he had what would eventually transform into one of the most influential English language dictionaries in the world.

photo credit: MattysFlicks via photopin cc
Unfortunately, “tongues” do have a tendency to stick. photo credit: MattysFlicks via photopin cc

Webster’s work standardized alternate, more phonetic spellings for many words, making changes such as colour to color and centre to center, though a few attempts at changes like women to wimmin, and tongue to tung didn’t stick, much to the chagrin of American elementary students trying to learn to spell.

Still, Webster’s dictionary was fairly well-received. For the first time, an English language dictionary included uniquely American words like skunk, hickory, and squash. And until a national uproar over Webster’s Third International Dictionary’s inclusion of the word ain’t in 1961, the public pretty much approved of the notion that the American version of the English language should evolve at the direction of the people, just as its government had been designed to do.

Controversy aside, Merriam-Webster dictionaries have long been a staple in American schools and on bookshelves in American homes. I received a copy of the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary when I graduated from high school and it has been with me for nearly twenty years, offering me over 215, 000 entries, none of which contains the correct spelling of either hashtag or turducken.

So perhaps it wasn’t such a terrible thing when I walked into my office a couple weeks ago to discover that my dog had pulled the faithful old book off its shelf and commenced to tear it to pieces. The cover is gone, as is a good chunk of the “A” section, including the entry for ain’t, if it was in the collegiate edition in the first place (alas, I’ll never know).

What's left of my dictionary.
What’s left of my dictionary.

At first I was mad, but as I thought about the history of this reference book, derived as it was from the frustrations of the man some consider to be the father of the American public education system, I realized that my dog ate my homework. Better than that, he ate America’s homework.

In celebration of Noah Webster’s 256th birthday, I could really use a new dictionary, anyway. And, I should probably keep it on a higher shelf.


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