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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 38

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This is the grave of Noah Webster.

2016-05-07 11.41.39

Born in 1758 in West Hartford, Connecticut, Webster came from a middling upbringing but one that sought better, as his father mortgaged his farm to send the boy to Yale. This was during the American Revolution, which Webster strongly supported, serving in the Connecticut militia although evidently never seeing action, or really looking for it. He trained to be a lawyer. But he couldn’t make a go of it and turned to teaching school instead. Webster was an early believer in American exceptionalism, writing:

America sees the absurdities—she sees the kingdoms of Europe, disturbed by wrangling sectaries, or their commerce, population and improvements of every kind cramped and retarded, because the human mind like the body is fettered ‘and bound fast by the chords of policy and superstition’: She laughs at their folly and shuns their errors: She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom; She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony … it will finally raise her to a pitch of greatness and lustre, before which the glory of ancient Greece and Rome shall dwindle to a point, and the splendor of modern Empires fade into obscurity.

To help promote the superior version of American English and the superiority of American nationalism, Webster began producing his spellers in 1785. He believed that the British aristocracy had corrupted real English and hoped his readers and spellers could expunge all traces of this in American English. His speller proved incredibly popular, going through 385 editions in his lifetime. Webster is primarily responsible for changing “re” endings to their proper “er” endings, as in “center” instead of “centre.” He proved quite flexible in the revisions of the book, constantly considering what would make a properly American language. The speller was strictly secular, with no religious mentions in it, as Webster strongly believed in the secular nature of the United States. His first dictionary came out in 1806, but it was small and he dedicated his later life to a truly comprehensive dictionary. This he completed in 1825. Of the 70,000 words in it, 12,000 had never been printed in a dictionary before. He added distinctly American words, many borrowed from Native Americans, like “skunk” and “squash.”

Yet his dictionary never really caught on in a way that made him rich. This had to do with his politics. Interestingly is that for someone seeking to promote a unified and republican America through popular language, Webster was a hard-core Federalist. Alexander Hamilton hired Webster to edit the Federalist Party newspaper in 1793. He found himself attacked from multiple sides during these years. He was hated by the Jeffersonians for his politics but hated by some Federalists as being too pro-French. He eventually served as a Federalist in the Connecticut state legislature for a few terms in the 1800s. But Federalists never trusted Webster or his democratic and inclusive dictionary and Jeffersonians never forgave him his attacks on their party in its early years. His own politics grew more conservative over the years, as he bitterly hated Jacksonian democracy and converted to Congregationalism. Even though he now wanted to convert the country to Christianity, releasing his own version of the Bible in 1833, his dictionary remained a secular project.

Webster died on May 28, 1843, just a few days after completing the appendix to the second edition of the dictionary.

Noah Webster is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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  • Davis

    It is annoying that the British spelling of theater has been taking over Wenster’s. Not only do most theaters nowadays call themselves “theatre”, but I even saw it used that way in the New Yorker!

    • Pseudonym

      The New Yorker is always coöpting foreign spellings to bolstre its affectations of cultural superiourity.

      • mikeSchilling

        ITYM The New Yourkre.

  • Aaron Baker

    Tangential, to put it mildly, but I’m struck by the popularity of obelisks in 19th-century cemeteries. There’s an old Catholic cemetery at the soutern end of Evanston, Illinois that has a forest of them. I know you have some interest in American funerary architecture; do you know of a monograph that’s on point here?

    Also: probably badly out of date now, but H.L. Mencken has a characteristically sardonic treatment of Webster in The American Language. A wonderful book for dipping into.

    • I’ve never really read anything on cemeteries per se, but I’ll bet there is something out there.

      • N__B

        There’s an enormous literature on grave marker symbolism, graveyard landscape architecture, and so on. My favorite piece is how the winged cherubs on grave stones gradually became winged skulls.

        • Pseudonym

          My favorite piece is how the winged cherubs on grave stones gradually became winged skulls.

          Wasn’t it the other way around?

          • N__B

            D’oh. Not sure…I plead alcohol and the fact that I am on vacation and my brain has been baked out of my skull.

          • Well, ancillary to a project (now nearly completed) which will be Revealed to All in the Fullness of Time, I very recently learned that the winged head of a cherub—as seen (for the relevant instance) at the Collàge Calvin in Geneva—is a symbol of the Rational Soul. Make of that what you can.

            • ajay

              I very recently learned that the winged head of a cherub—as seen (for the relevant instance) at the Collàge Calvin in Geneva—is a symbol of the Rational Soul.

              What could be more symbolic of rationality than the severed head of a small child jammed on to the front end of a chicken?

          • Hogan
        • Lurker

          I really had hard time believing that this was not a joke but according to the article above, it is true. I thought it was a satirical Warhammer 40K reference, cause there, winged skulls and skeletal cherubs are commonplace imagery.

    • cpinva

      “Tangential, to put it mildly, but I’m struck by the popularity of obelisks in 19th-century cemeteries. There’s an old Catholic cemetery at the soutern end of Evanston, Illinois that has a forest of them. I know you have some interest in American funerary architecture; do you know of a monograph that’s on point here?”

      while I can’t give you a cite, I can give you a hint: Mary Washington, mom of George; her grave in Fredericksburg, VA is decorated with an obelisk, pre-dating all of the 19th century ones, as well as the monument to her son, in DC, not completed until well after the end of the civil war. I would guess (and mind, this is almost pure speculation on my part), many of the people who visited Mrs. Washington’s grave came away with that obelisk imprinted in the their memory. thinking “Hey, if it’s good enough for G. Washington’s Mother, then by golly, it’s good enough for (insert name here)!”

      Prof. Loomis, if you’d like, I can take a picture of said grave (about a mile from where I live), and try and figure out how to get it on here. one of the interesting aspects of living here is that I can’t help but stumble over some historical thing or another, from the early colonial to the present period.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Well, obelisks have been popular ever since the Romans started looting them from Egypt.

        You have to have hieroglyphics on them to be a REAL obelisk, and the best ones translate as:

        My parents visited The Valley of The Kings,
        and all I got was this stupid obelisk

        • galanx

          I wonder if the popularity is due to the “Cleopatra’s Needle” obelisk, ‘gifted’ to France by Muhammad Ali (Khedive of Egypt) and re-erected to great publicity in Paris in 1833- part of the general enthusiasm for ancient Egypt sparked by Napoleon’s expedition and the discovery of the Rosetta stone.

      • Aaron Baker

        Thanks!

    • Stag Party Palin

      Obelisk? I thought it was a bookmark.

      • cpinva

        well, that dictionary has gotten to be pretty damn big by now!

  • efgoldman

    Was Noah related to Daniel? I imagine “Webster” was a fairly common name at that time.

    • Don’t believe so.

    • JonH

      Apparently not, but according to Wikipedia the descendants of Noah Webster’s father include Philo Farnsworth.

      So there’s that.

      • cpinva

        it never ceases to amaze me the number of historically impactful people who have been alive during my lifetime, although news of my impending birth was enough to do Einstein in.

  • Thom

    Presumably he also attacked the burning question of “colour” vs. “color.” By the way, I found in reading mid-19th century government documents from the British colony of Natal, in what is now South Africa, the normal usage was the one we now see as American, for instance “honor,” (not “honour”).

  • JohnT

    Even as a (part) Englishman I think that Webster did not go far enough to fit the language for a new continent. Vast quantities of English spelling says more about the origin of a word than how to bloody pronounce it. The result is a mess that slows down the ability to learn the language (bad in a nation of immigrants) and allows spelling ability to be used a class marker (bad for social mobility). It has so many homonyms even modern spell-checkers can’t quite save you. It’s a pity no-one was able to do what the Communists were able to do with Mandarin Chinese, and strip it right down. (I remember someone tried – Hearst maybe? – but failed beyond an occasional ‘thru’ and ‘lite’).

    I am particularly sore about this because I am currently trying to teach my son to read both Dutch and English, and the first is much easier. In English with every second or word you have to say “Yes, you would think you would say it like that but you actually say it like *this*.”

    • Hogan

      Even though I’ve never been to Cholmondeley, I agree completely.
      On the other hand, Webster lived for only 85 years; that’s barely enough time to get started on such a project.

    • UserGoogol

      A bunch of people have tried. You might thinking of Carnegie.

    • cpinva

      actually, most of the English language is either French or Germanic (Angles & Saxons), so there isn’t really anything that can claim legitimacy as a “pure” English language. hey, we started out as a polyglot bunch, and have just grown more polyglot.

      • Thom

        In linguistic terms, English is West Germanic. Unlike its close relative Dutch, it has a lot of loan words from French.

        • Bootsie

          Thank you Norman bastards, bringing your Black Speech with you.

    • Stag Party Palin

      We English speakers seem remarkably unable to spell phonetically. Old words, ok, there might be reasons. But how about imported words? How badly did we screw up Bombay and Peking that they had to change to Mumbai and Beijing? Assuming the latest versions are ‘correct’ as far as we can say them. And that tennis player, Kyrgios. The ‘g’ is silent. How did we manage to take Greek script and put in a silent ‘g’? Madness.

      • Frequently Confused

        I can’t say for sure on Mumbai/Bombay but in the case of Peking/Beijing, that’s really not as bad as it seems.

        You have to remember that Chinese consists of a single written language and number of spoken languages that share the same characters. They have universal meaning but are said differently depending on the dialect being spoken.

        IIRC In Cantonese the characters come closer to the sound Peking than Beijing.

        Oh yeah, considering the sheer number of official languages in India it wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of them uses something remarkably close to Bombay for the name of Mumbai.

      • Jean-Michel

        “Bombay” is from the Portuguese Bombaim, which is still used in that language and may come from the phrase bom baim “good bay.” “Peking” is from a 18th-century romanization that reflects an older stage of Mandarin before the initial /k/ underwent palatalization to /t͡ɕ/. (The p/b distinction is down to the fact that the sound in question never occurs in English at the beginning of a word and can therefore only be approximated with English spelling.) The fact that the spellings were changed Mumbai and Beijing doesn’t reflect that English is uniquely terrible at spelling foreign words, but rather that English-speakers are almost uniquely willing to change their language at the request of foreigners–as noted above, the Portuguese haven’t bothered to change Bombaim to “Mumbai” and a number of languages still retain older names for “Beijing,” such as German (Peking), French (Pékin), Spanish (Pekin), Russian (Пекин Pekin), and Japanese (ペキン Pekin).

        As for “Kyrgios,” the silent g is no addition–the Greek form is Κύργιος, which transliterates letter-for-letter as “Kyrgios.” Presumably the g became silent because it represents a sound that doesn’t exist in modern English. So in other words, the silent g is a consequence of being too faithful to the Greek script, instead of indigenizing a foreign spelling to reflect how the pronunciation changes in English…which is really the root of the problem with English orthography.

        • Stag Party Palin

          An excellent explanation. I shall cease shouting at clouds. But, if what you say about Bombay/Mumbai is correct, that opens the possibility that the Portuguese originated the city name, which would be interesting.

          • heckblazer

            Given that the city was ruled by Portugal before the British took it over I don’t think its too surprising.

        • ajay

          Yes, Bombay/Mumbai is not because the British (or the Portuguese) turned up at a city called “Mumbai” and wrote the name down wrong. They founded a city called “Bombaim”, which the Portuguese gave to the British as part of a dowry, the British then renamed it “Bombay”. The Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena state government (a very nasty bunch) then changed its English and Hindi name to “Mumbai” in 1995, which is what several of the local languages in Maharashtra called it already, claiming (falsely) that it had always been called Mumbai and “Bombay” was just a legacy of colonialism.

          Most of the population of the city aren’t Maharashtran, they’re from other bits of India, and a lot of them aren’t Hindu, which of course Shiv Sena hates.

        • Lurker

          This is a question of actual political correctness. There is a United Nations recommendation which proposes that all places should be called by their local, indigenous names, to decrease the historical burden of colonialism. The English language community has complied admirably.

          In the English language, this makes a lot of sense, as many English names are indeed burdens of colonialism. In other language communities, this is not quite so clear-cut.

          For example, if we Finns use Peking, it is simply because we adopted the city name to the Finnish language at the time that was the dominant Chinese pronunciation. In addition, “Beijing” has a sound that is difficult for us to pronounce. Similarly, Stockholm is in Finnish Tukholma, Saint Petersburg, Pietari and London, Lontoo. In all these cases, the names have been formed so that foreign phonemes have been dropped or modified. If we accommodate popular foreign names so that they fit into our language, this is not linguistic colonialism but simply self-preservation of a small linguistic community.

          • ajay

            In the English language, this makes a lot of sense, as many English names are indeed burdens of colonialism.

            In fact, pretty much every English placename in England is a burden of colonialism. London, Manchester, York, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham…

            and, indeed, “England” itself.

            • Hogan

              Everything -chester or -cester.

              And of course Milton Keynes. Assuming that’s a real place.

    • galanx

      (This is actually a reply to JohnT’s comments above about teaching English spelling, but for some reason the combox insists on placing it here.)

      Tell me about it- 28 years of teaching English in Taiwan.

      Where the English language is usually known as “Mei-yu”, ‘American language’. So the common answer to “What language do British people speak?” is

      “Ying-guo ren jiang Mei-yu”
      ‘British people speak American.’

      • Stag Party Palin

        When I was employed we had a Chinese salesman who needed Chinese secretaries. Two of those who served were named “Gloria”, a word no Chinese could ever pronounce. In between bouts of giggling when I heard customers try, I wondered what the ladies’ parents were thinking.

        • mikeSchilling

          Probably big Van Morrison fans.

        • JohnT

          I’ve heard from Chinese friends that most Cinese people with English names (except HK and Singapore, I think) get them handed to them more or less randomly on the first day of English lessons. Pity really. Chinese names tend to have much greater depths of meaning, as far as I can tell.
          Perhaps Galanx could confirm?

      • galanx

        As a Canadian, I grew up using British spelling, but generally use American style now. I find that I often unconsciously switch back (honour, colour, centre) in comments when I’m taking a loftily disdainful attitude to some (usually right-wing) nationalist stance from our American Cousins.

        I note the superiority of one piece of Canadian usage. Where Americans say “French fries:chips” and Britons say “chips:crisps” , Canadians, with admirable economy , say “chips:chips”.

        • Where Americans say “French fries:chips” and Britons say “chips:crisps” , Canadians, with admirable economy , say “chips:chips”.

          And you let them fall where they may?

    • ajay

      The result is a mess that slows down the ability to learn the language

      There is no evidence, as far as I know, that English is any more difficult to learn than other languages. Some have silly spelling, some have rational spelling but ludicrous grammar…

      • JohnT

        Fine. ‘Learn to write the language accurately ‘ then.

  • That’s my favorite American cemetery. I especially love the entrance gate in grand Egyptian Revival style (though I’ve always thought of it as Egyptian neo-Gothic) saying “The dead shall be raised”

  • mikeSchilling

    She founds her empire upon the idea of universal toleration: She admits all religions into her bosom; She secures the sacred rights of every individual; and (astonishing absurdity to Europeans!) she sees a thousand discordant opinions live in the strictest harmony

    That’s a vision of American exceptionalism I could fully support, along with

    Nae King! Nae quin! Nae Laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled agin!

    • JohnT

      + 1000 likes for on-point Pratchett quote!

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