“A Dictionary We Do Not Want”: Defining America against Noah Webster, 1783-1810

TIM CASADY
THE WILLIAM AND MARY QUARTERLY 71.2 (2014): 229-254

In this excellent essay reviewing the early reception of Noah Webster’s efforts to provide a dictionary of American English, the author has overturned a longstanding myth that Webster was always the celebrated champion of an early American identity that sought not only political but cultural independence from England. Casady shows clearly through an extended review of the contemporary literature criticizing Webster’s early efforts to justify an American dictionary culminating in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), that his efforts were roundly opposed as either an institutionalization of corrupt and incorrect usages or as a promotion of regionalisms that threatened American national unity. Neither side of the political spectrum of the time seemed well disposed to his efforts. After 1810, however, national and democratic sentiments had shifted, such that by the time of the Antebellum period, the standard myth was secured to him as a founder in the defense of an American idiom. The reader notes, however, an interesting point not raised in the essay, but which arises from a review of the footnoted evidence: The number of sources coming from New York and Pennsylvania seem to predominate. Perhaps this is due largely to the location of the publishing industry itself, but might it also reflect the degree to which those regions were tied by commerce into what is known as Atlantic civilization? This is not to defend Pierre Bourdieu’s socioeconomic basis for language, which the author also rightly attacks, but rather to suggest that the need for a common idiom within which to conduct maritime commercial communications may have been a motivating factor. The author notes that Webster evinced an Anti-Atlanticism that relaxed by the time of his later editions, while an expanding domestic commerce may have eased concerns about the exigencies of Atlantic ties. That question could prove useful for later researches.