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

Tim Cassedy
The William and Mary Quarterly
Vol. 71, No. 2 (April 2014), pp. 229-254
DOI: 10.5309/willmaryquar.71.2.0229
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Page Count: 26
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“A Dictionary Which We Do Not Want”: Defining America against Noah
Webster, 1783–1810
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Noah Webster has usually been understood as a cultural nationalist whose advocacy of an “American-English” language helped to unify the fledgling American republic after the Revolution. That understanding, however, elides the overwhelmingly bad reception of Webster and his linguistic ideas in the early national United States. Even as Webster's 1783 spelling book became ubiquitous in American primary education, his subsequent plans to discard British linguistic standards and institutionalize “American” spellings, pronunciations, and vocabulary prompted an extensive and vehement print backlash. Newspapers and magazines devoted hundreds of thousands of words in the 1790s and 1800s to condemning Webster's “vulgar perversions,” “horrible irregularity,” “subtle poison,” and “illiterate and pernicious” ideas about language. Although these controversies arose around apparently narrow linguistic issues, they persisted because they implicated broad and thorny questions about the meaning of America. For several decades, opposing Webster was a powerful way for Americans to articulate their ambivalent desires for self-differentiation from Europe, their uncomfortable sense of diversities within and among the United States, and their enduring commitments to transnational norms and identities.

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