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Noah Webster recognized need for uniformity of American language

Noah Webster recognized need for uniformity of American language

November 18, 2005|by LISA PREJEAN

I was almost asleep, but the book in my hand beckoned me to continue for another paragraph. Set in the American West in the years following the Civil War, the tale was one of adventure and courage. It was hard to put down.

As I slowly placed my bookmark at the spot where I stopped, my eyes rested on one word: Truculent.

That's such an interesting word, I thought. We don't hear it or see it very often. I jotted it on my nightstand notepad, making a mental note to look up its origin the next day.

(I also had a few grocery items on the same slip of paper. My family must not have noticed my "dental floss, bath soap, truculent" note. Either that or they're just so used to seeing strange notes around the house that they didn't bother to mention it.)

Truculent means rude, harsh, mean or scathing. It typically is used to describe speech or writing. It comes from the Latin word truculentus, which means fierce or savage.

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It's wonderful to be able to pick up a dictionary and have information such as this at our fingertips.

Whether I'm writing, grading papers or dropping a note to a friend, my Webster's New World College Dictionary is typically close at hand.

I used to think of the dictionary as a book that was compiled by many editors working under the best of conditions. That's probably the case today, but certainly not in the days of the dictionary's infancy.

After reading the biography "Noah Webster: A Man Who Loved Words" by Elaine Cunningham with my class, I have a whole new appreciation for Webster's reference guide.

A native of Connecticut, Webster is credited with writing the first major American dictionary. He worked on the text for more than 25 years, writing definitions for 70,000 words by hand.

In his study, he carefully arranged dictionaries and grammar books of many different languages. For each word, he would go from book to book around the table until he had the information he felt was most complete.

There were skeptics in his day who said that an American dictionary was not needed because Samuel Johnson had written a dictionary for the British. If there already was a dictionary of the English language, why write another one?

Webster argued that there was a need for an American dictionary because many of the British words in Johnson's text were unknown in America. Plus, some American words - skunk, applesauce, bullfrog and squash, to name a few - were not included in the British dictionary. Webster also Americanized some British spellings. For instance, colour became color and musick became music.

During the time he spent writing the dictionary, Webster's only income came from sales of a spelling textbook he wrote for American schoolchildren. It was commonly called the "Blue-Backed Speller" because of its blue cover. The text sold more than 100 million copies.

He worked so diligently for so many years on his dictionary project because, as a former educator, he saw the need for a uniformity of the English language in America.

Webster truly was ahead of his time. Instead of punishing children with a crack on the knuckles for a wrong answer, he offered incentives for good work and played review games with his classes. He was a respected and well-liked schoolmaster.

He's also an excellent example of how one person can make a tremendous impact on the world whenever diligence and perseverance are applied to a project ... even if it takes a quarter century to complete.




Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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