June 18, 2015

According to Webster

An ambiguous message that is clarified by making effective use of the statement “According to Webster…” is typically recognized as persuasively valid. But who is “Webster” and what are his qualifications to be held in such high regard? In the absence of Google in prison, and with smart-phones considered contraband that facilitate an immediate and lengthy trip to “the hole”, I have found myself perusing the 2,662 pages of Webster’s Unabridged Third New International Dictionary with unexpected interest as I seek to make progress on my writing goals. By the way, according to Webster, “unabridged” means being the most complete of its class.

Noah Webster’s life was remarkable. He lived from 1758 to 1843, through the American Revolution, and was a defender and interpreter of the American political “experiment.” His greatest contributions to American civilization were his Dictionary and Spelling Book. Together they were written to explain the American language and culture to its growing population. The importance of these contributions is significant considering the historical relationship of America and Great Britain, two countries separated by a common language.

Noah Webster is best appreciated alongside a brief understanding of his life and his genuine commitment to America. According to his biography, Webster was born on a farm in Connecticut and became a student at Yale when college dispersed inland to satellite campuses under British control of the colonies. Mr. Webster and his father marched against British forces in the American Revolution. Among his many accomplishments, Webster operated a daily newspaper in New York City and wrote in support of the Federalist policies of George Washington and John Adams, including advocating for adoption of the Federal Constitution. He lived under the first ten Presidents of the United States during a time when the nascent country acquired the Louisiana Territory, Florida, thirteen additional states and the territory that eventually became Texas. Webster recognized the magnitude of such growth, and concluded that America needed its own uniform language and intellectual life. Resentment against the ignorance toward American institutions, which was portrayed in British dictionaries, provided motivation for Webster to develop his works, which grew out of his vast experience and knowledge of American life.

Noah Webster was comfortable on the farm, in American cities, schools, law and politics. He was familiar with the country as a whole because he had traveled by many modes including horse, carriage, and by sailing vessel from Massachusetts to South Carolina. He had experience persuading state legislatures to pass laws for the protection of copyright, was an experienced spelling reformer, an orchardist, a gardener and a scientist. He practiced law before the United States Supreme Court and was a devoted Calvinistic churchman. Some of his additional work included writing scores of articles, books and pamphlets on literary, economic, political, philological, practical, and scientific topics. He also wrote about banks, epidemics, insurance, the French Revolution, the decomposition of white-lead paint, the Jay Treaty, and the rights of neutral nations in time of war. Moreover, Noah Webster wrote and published a revised and emended version of the Bible. In 1812, while living in Amherst, Massachusetts, he began a 10 year process of reviewing the dictionaries and grammar books of twenty languages, which he organized around a large round table. In 1824, he sailed to Europe to spend a year in the libraries of London, Cambridge and Paris to consult books that were not available in America. Finally, in 1828, at the age of 70, he published 2,500 copies of An American Dictionary of the English Language.

Noah Webster was a standard-bearer of American language and culture. According to Webster, a “standard-bearer” is a leader of an organization or movement. His intimate knowledge, dedication and contributions to American culture support his dominating validation of our language. Anyone seeking to expand their writing platform, as I am doing in pursuit of achieving my goals, should find value in understanding the life perspective of this great America.

Kevin Boardman

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