Monday, September 21, 2009

The president went on all the news shows on Sunday (well, all but that one on that top-rated cable news channel -the one that rhymes with "pox") to sell his Health Plan, er, Program, or, System, whatever he calls it. Anyway, it's not a tax, though even George Stephanopoulos on ABC seemed to think it was a tax. So sure, was George, that he pulled out the Webster's Dictionary definition of "tax", which President Obama rejected. So the dictionary is wrong. Who knew? Anyway, he seemed to elevate his intent for "change" to a whole new level.

There are few things we can rely on in life and society, but one of them ought to be the dictionary. I love the dictionary, and I refer to it all the time with the little right-click widget I have on my Mac -very handy. People neglect, dismiss, disregard, and even forsake the dictionary, AND THESE PEOPLE SHOULD BE UPBRAIDED! When you consider that Supreme Court justices refer to the dictionary all the time in order to form their high judgements and opinions, the dictionary takes on near Biblical proportions. (And, Lord knows, justices never refer to the Bible for their opinions.)

When I was at USC I roomed in a dorm with a Syrian immigrant, Karim Mohammed Moudarres. He carried the dictionary with him at all times, I guess because he was still learning English. I would come home from class at nights and he'd be sitting there in the kitchenette, slurping down ramen with the dictionary open on the table. I made fun of him doing this for a while, until I realized how dumb I was, and I've been reading the dictionary myself ever since.

I read Webster's. I read it because Noah Webster was a great American who dedicated his life to defining simply everything, and then arranged it all alphabetically. This was no small feat! Before his dictionary was published in 1828, American spelling and grammar was chaotic nonsense. Today we read old manuscripts in museums and think, What morons -they couldn't even spell! It's a wonder those illiterate founders ever pulled it together to build a nation! But the truth is: there was no "correct" spelling back then. You'd sit down to write a letter and just spell it all out the way it sounded. A world with no proper spelling! Think abowt it!

So Noah Webster set out to change all that, and become the bane of schoolchildren, forevermore. Interestingly, Webster's passion for spelling, grammar, and definition reached profound cultural and political heights. Having attended Yale during the revolution, (and serving, at the same time, in the Connecticut Militia) he was a sincere and dedicated patriotic American -one of the first. His work that culminated in The American Dictionary of the English Language was explicitly nationalistic, in that he felt that the American language should be distinct from England, as a form of cultural independence. So he took it upon himself to re-spell words like colour, theatre, plough, musick, centre, favour, honour, programme, traveller, and defence, -and the English have belittled us about it ever since. (Some re-spellings did not catch on, however. He had changed tongue to "tung" and women to "wimmen". Unfortunate losses to language, the both of them.)

Webster spent most of his life on his dictionary, mulling every last word of Shakespeare and the Bible, and in the process learning 26 languages (including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Old Irish, Persian, and seven Asiatic and Assyrian-based languages) and finally compiling over 70,000 entries -many of which he made up himself, and a full 12,000 of these words had never been published in any word compendium before. There were distinctly American things in it, too, like "skunk", "hickory", "squash", and, thankfully, "chowder". He consulted every book in every library in America, and when those were exhausted he went to Europe to look through old lists of words, and explanations of foreign plants, creatures, places, everything. Imagine the scope of a project like that, with no phones, no Internet, no fast transportation or postal system, and no ballpoint pens. In the dark (well, candlelight.)

And then, in January of 1825, Webster wrote,

When I had come to the last word, I was seized with a trembling which made it somewhat difficult to hold my pen steady for writing. The cause seems to have been the thought that I might not then live to finish the work, or the thought that I was so near the end of my labors. But I summoned strength to finish the last word, and then walking about the room a few minutes I recovered.
I couldn't find what word that turned out to be, ("zygote"? "zymurgy" Perhaps it didn't begin with z at all,) but I know the feeling.

His life's work was not without its supporters. Benjamin Franklin liked Webster's ideas about an American dictionary, and wrote:
Our Ideas are so nearly similar, that I make no doubt of our easily agreeing on the plan, and you may depend on the best support I may be able to give it as part of your institute.
And George Washington asked Noah Webster to come to Mount Vernon as a tutor for his grandchildren. Webster (turning him down) replied that:
...books & business will ever be my principal pleasure. I must write. It is a happiness I cannot sacrifice.
He was one of the most prolific writers of his time, penning political essays, newspaper articles, one of the first American histories, and several educational textbooks. James Madison read and admired Webster’s Sketches of American Policy. The ideas Webster set forth in his Sketches are thought to have had some influence on the writing of the Constitution. And when Webster got caught in a web of copyright problems with his popular children's schoolbooks, he proposed a successful and influential copyright bill in the Senate in 1831, which was sponsored by Daniel Webster, his cousin.

So it was a full, and historic, life. He fought for his country as a young man, rallied with Samuel Adams, founded and edited the first newspaper in New York (for Alexander Hamilton), served in the Connecticut House of Representatives, dined with Marquis de Lafayette, and wouldn't take no for answer when his girl turned down his proposal of marriage, writing:
Without you the world is all alike to me; and with you any part will be agreeable...
"The world is all alike to me." These are big words, coming from the author of the master dictionary. She came around. Eventually, their sons would carry on the tradition of his passion for lexicography.

And, it should be added, Noah Webster was a devout Christian. His dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume up to that time. He considered education "useless" without the Bible, and in 1833 wrote a "Common Version" of the King James Bible. He had no interest in theologically motivated changes, but rather wanted to do away with some of the archaic language of ye olde English, and correct some small grammatical errors, so that it would altogether be easier to grasp for children, everyone. His only criticized and questionable change was exchanging the word "whore", which he found offensive, to the obviously more appropriate "lewd woman". (I haven't been able to track down if the compelling phrase "lewd wimmen" exists in Webster's Common Version.) And his popular schoolbooks, which covered spelling, grammar, and countless other items, began with this first biblical lesson:
Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor for your body, what ye shall put on; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things...
Ultimately, in the preface to the 1828 edition of the dictionary, Webster wrote:
In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed... No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.
Claim something like that nowadays and they'll put you in the corner under a dunce cap.

But these stories all seem to end the same: with the genius' entire fortune gone, the home mortgaged, the family in debt, and his life's work more or less unacknowledged. He died on May 28, 1843, a few days after he had completed revising an appendix to the second edition of the original search engine, The American Dictionary of the English Language. Dictionaries evidently did not sell well in the 19th century, and unsold copies of dictionaries were piled in warehouses. A few years after Webster's death, a couple guys called the Merriam brothers happened along and bought everything, including the rights (the rights to the dictionary!) and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Noah Webster is the authority, and the father, of the American language. It just goes to show that every great artist, every great thinker, every great work, needs a business mind behind it.

Incidentally, The Oxford English Dictionary didn't get around to being published until 1933.

Anyway, it's all true. You can look it up.