The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 33. Noah Webster

Noah Webster (1758–1843), a Connecticut farmer’s boy, graduated at Yale in 1778, and after studying law and teaching school in several Connecticut towns, compiled in the years following 1782 his Grammatical Institute of the English Language, in three parts: (I) his celebrated Spelling Book (1783), of which “more than eighty million copies are said to have been sold before 1880”; (II) a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar (1784); (III) a Reader (1785). His first dictionary, the Compendious Dictionary of 1806, at once takes independent Yankee ground. Webster was not to be imposed upon by even the authority of the English Johnson; the locution “never so wise,” opposed by Johnson, he favoured on historical grounds; “skeptic,” proposed by Johnson, he opposed on grounds of analogy. In fact, Webster had taught himself some Anglo-Saxon, and, however imperfectly acquainted with it, had acquired a true and sensible feeling for historical method and for the weight of analogy in deciding points where usage is doubtful. In these respects his Dictionary anticipates the methods of the larger American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, in the preparation of which he spent the next twenty years.

Meanwhile there should be noted the appearance of a dictionary by Burgiss Allison: The American Standard of Orthography and Pronunciation, and Modern Dictionary of the English Language (1815). This is an abridged form of material which Allison promised to issue soon without abridgment; but whether he did so is not certain. What distinguishes his work is that he aimed not merely at utility, as Webster did, but at “fixing a standard,” and that he had enlisted the interest of “many distinguished Characters, and Seminaries.… The reception of their collective observations, and through them of the literati in general, must eventually furnish a highly perfected dictionary.”

Webster’s studies were without any such guidance. He applied himself to etymology; undertook a comparative study of the “principal words in twenty languages, arranged in classes under their primary elements or letters”; and of these made a Synopsis which gave him “what appeared to be the general principle on which these languages were constructed.” There-upon he spent a year abroad, studying chiefly “the pronunciation of the language in England … and incidental points in pronunciation and grammatical construction.” The book, finished at Cambridge early in 1825, was issued in 1828. Webster lived to make one revision (for the edition of 1840), and was engaged upon another when he died. It was unfortunate that Webster did not come into contact with the “literati,” for they would have enabled him before his second edition, and all the more before his third, to correct his work by means of the comparative method which had been elaborated in Germany. Yet even had the complete method of Grimm and Bopp been accessible to him in 1828, Webster, then seventy years old, could hardly have been censured for not acquiring at that age a new set of highly inflected languages with complex inter-relations, or even for not realizing that the new method would kill his old etymologies. But the fact seems to be that he was simply unaware of the new movement. It was not until 1833 that Gessner Harrison received his materials upon it from George Long; not until 1839 that Salisbury brought it to Yale, where Webster might have had a chance to hear of it.

Webster much enlarged Johnson’s vocabulary, admitting a large number of technical terms which Johnson considered outside the classic pale. In this respect Webster’s broad personal experience as farmer, lawyer, teacher, editor, and pamphleteer served him well. He was open-minded and meant his book to be serviceable to the common man. In spelling, though his fondness for analogy tended toward a logical schematism, he yet guarded his reforms in most cases by consulting usage, logic not logick, meter not metre, honor not honour, symbolize not symbolise. Webster’s definitions are admittedly his forte. They are untinged with personal bias; they are proportioned in space to the importance of the word and the number of its meanings; and they are so phrased that generally they can be substituted for the word itself. Quotations it was Webster’s policy to employ only “to illustrate those definitions that are not entirely evident in sense” without them.

Though in England Webster’s Dictionary has not superseded Johnson’s, it soon became the standard in the United States. The revision of 1847, conducted by Chauncey A. Goodrich, was authoritative. After the fourth edition, the so-called Pictorial, further revised by Goodrich but considered only provisional (1859), there appeared in 1864 the fifth edition, the first to be known as the Unabridged, a thorough recension by Goodrich (who died in 1860) and by Noah Porter, with a staff which included C. A. F. Mahn of Berlin (who revised the etymologies), W. D. Whitney, James Dwight Dana, Daniel Coit Gilman, and James Hadley. This has been the basis of later revisions, gradually getting rid of some of its defects; for instance, its unscholarly treatment of locutions like “had better,” “had rather,” and its derivation of “gonoph” from “gone off”! The sixth edition (1890)—the International—was the result of the most “extensive and exhaustive revision that the Dictionary had received.” In 1900 there was added a Supplement, still edited by Noah Porter, who had now associated with himself William Torrey Harris; and in 1909 the seventh edition—the New International—“entirely remade,” was published by Harris as editor-in-chief, and F. Sturges Allen, who had been on the staff of the original International, as general editor.