Here’s the fellow we can pinpoint as the culprit for all this damn confusion and ongoing hoo-ha regarding the rights and wrongs of US and UK spelling of certain words.
This no-nonsense fellow you see is Noah Webster, a Connecticuter born in 1758, who through his rather passionate dislike of the UK, its ruling aristocracy and its arcane teaching methods, devoted a good proportion of his life to changing the way American children were educated, according to his rather antagonistic utopian vision.
An educated man, he qualified as a lawyer after studying at Yale University but was unable to find work in his chosen legal field.
Suitably annoyed that he couldn’t get a job in a prestigious law firm, Webster channelled his ire toward the teaching profession, directing his bile at the teachers of time, “…dregs of humanity…”,
and decided to write his own teaching book. That three-part book, first published in 1783 was the rather clumsily titled, ‘The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language’. Interestingly, Webster’s goal was to teach children in a ground-breaking way which threw out the established British style which Webster hated with a passion.
In his book, commonly referred to as the ‘Blue Backed Speller’, which gained massive popularity right across America, being reprinted more than three hundred and fifty times, Webster began to incorporate a more phonetic style to the established British spelling in the revised editions as they were reprinted over the years.
It’s in these reprints that Webster incorporated his versions that have become so familiar throughout the world. His first examples were: color, defense, traveler and his particular favourite, (or should that be favorite?), center.
This was Webster’s opportunity to, “reclaim our mother tongue”, and through his passionate and diligent work, he began to rewrite English for a new age in a style he created, giving rise to a new set of spelling and subsequent grammar standards firstly across the USA and in the years that followed, across many parts of the world.
Buoyed by the success of his books, Webster set to work in 1807 on a definitive dictionary that would bear his name, validating his vision for a purer form of the English language. However, after twenty-one years of work his, ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language’, published in 1828 didn’t prove to be the big-seller that he’d envisioned selling only 2,500 copies. Ever obstinate and deep in debt, Webster started work on a heavily revised second edition in two volumes which was published in 1840. His dictionary was a true labour of love and was created by Webster specifically to further spread his vision and cement his legacy. However, fate dealt him a cruel hand and he died in May 1843 while working on an appendix to a second edition.
Sadly, because of poor sales, Webster’s work went more or less unrecognised and the rights to his work were bought by publishing bothers George and Charles Merriam in 1843. As a consequence, all future editions of the dictionaries were published in the USA under the Merriam-Webster name, ensuring Webster’s work will be forever recognised by generations to come.
As I mentioned above, Webster created a huge number of new spellings, most of which have segued into everyday use across the world. However, I do want to point out a few clunkers that he tried his darndest to get accepted, but thankfully were given short shrift. Here’s a few of Webster’s nineteenth century lexicographical howlers that didn’t cut the grammatical mustard.
|We write||Webster’s turkey||We write||Webster’s turkey||We write||Webster’s turkey|
*(Folt is nothing to do with Webster, I made it up)
If you’d like to learn more about the English language and ways to improve your skills and knowledge then please drop me a line at simon@englishmaverick to find out more.