Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English

Article excerpt

Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English. Compiled by Arthur Schulman. (New York: Free Press, 2008. Pp. 304. Cloth, $24.95.)

Reviewed by K. A. Wisniewski

The name Webster is known in every American household; however despite several biographies and the somewhat recent publication of a collection of his letters, essays, and diaries, the life and work of the man who produced the American Dictionary of the English Language is not widely known. After leaving Yale University and volunteering in the American Revolution, Noah Webster developed a legal practice, worked as a schoolteacher, developed school textbooks, fought for the ratification of copyright laws, contributed to the Constitution, and edited the American Magazine and the American Minerva. Although Websterisms doesn't offer a deep look into his biography, the compilation of words and definitions here might spark more interest in the man responsible for the dictionary. This work should be of some interest not only to students of language, Webster, and the new republic but also to a more general audience interested in works like Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, Melvyn Bragg's Adventures of English, and Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.

The work begins with an introductory essay by Jill Lepore, who expands upon her original New Yorker piece. Here, Lepore provides a valuable framework for understanding how the dictionary came to be. She emphasizes Webster's paradoxical ideas about language and politics and demonstrates why Webster's endeavors to create the work were so poorly received: Federalists viewed the work as radical - too inclusive in its lexicon and even bordering on vulgar - while Republicans, remaining true to their party, attacked the man, labeling him mad for such an undertaking. Despite her admission to his sometimes tedious and dull writing style and almost always disagreeable nature, Lepore champions Webster's innovation and persistence, depicting a man who survived harsh criticisms from all sides to finally produce a work that contributed so much to the formation of a national identity. Of course, these disparagements make an interesting story and do show the micropoli tical context of the work. …

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