UW News

May 26, 2016

Documents that Changed the World: Noah Webster’s dictionary, 1828

UW News

Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, title page shown here. Webster's work is the subject of an installment of Joe Janes' Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.Wikipedia

It’s twilight time for printed dictionaries, whose word-filled bulk weighed down desks, held open doors and by turns inspired and intimidated writers searching for the perfect word.

Lexicography — the making of dictionaries — has gone digital. Though a few are still published, the dictionary’s time as printed, bound documents is almost up.

In this meantime, Joe Janes turns the attention of his Documents that Changed the World podcast series to the man as firmly identified with dictionaries as Hershey is with chocolate, Noah Webster, and the 70,000-word “American Dictionary of the English language” he published in 1828. It was one of the last dictionaries to be compiled by a single person.

Documents that Changed the World:
Noah Webster’s dictionary, 1828.

In the podcasts, Janes, an associate professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. All the podcasts are available online through the iSchool website, and on iTunes, where the series has more than 250,000 downloads.

Webster, who lived from 1758 to 1843, was at times a failed farmer, an uninspired teacher, a state representative, a co-founder of Amherst College, a copyright advocate and a friend of George Washington once dubbed by biographer as a “forgotten founding father.” He was also a Federalist and dedicated revolutionary who deeply loved his country.

Though the first English dictionary dates back to 1604, it was Webster and his 1828 volume that was credited with capturing the language of the new nation. Janes said, “This dictionary was the first serious articulation of American English as it was growing increasingly distinct from the British variety.”

And that was clearly Webster’s intention, as stated in the dictionary’s preface: “Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.”

Webster was also enthusiastic about spelling reform, Janes notes. “He had more luck there than most; we have him to thank for Americanized spellings of ‘favor,’ and ‘theater’ and ‘defense'” as well as the word “Americanize” itself,” Janes says. “But he didn’t get away with ‘tung,’ ‘ake’ or dropping the final ‘e’ from words like ‘doctrine.'”

Words define languages, Janes says, and in turn languages help to define cultures and societies.

“And people define words, as the last man who tried to define them all himself knew — in the process trying also to define and distinguish his developing nation.”


For more about this or any of the Documents that Changed the World podcasts, contact Janes at jwj@uw.edu.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series