Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mr. Webster's Dictionary

Have you ever wondered why some English words are spelled differently in America? For instance, color rather than colour; center instead of centre; honor rather honour; program rather than programme?

I had often wondered this myself, and then I ran into some information about Noah Webster.

Webster (1758-1843) authored readers and spelling books that were dominant in the American market at the time. Believing in the developing cultural independence of the United States, the chief part of which was to be a distinctive American language with its own idiom, pronunciation, and style, he published in 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first truly American dictionary. He included technical terms from the arts and sciences, where previous dictionaries only used literary words.
An 1888 advertisement for Webster's Unabridged Dictionary
Credit: wikipedia

In 1828 he published his American Dictionary of the English Language, and in 1841, a corrected version with five thousand additional words.

His work was not well received in the beginning. The culturally conservative Federalist party declared it radical – inclusive in its lexicon and bordering on vulgar. Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans attacked Webster, labeling him mad for such an undertaking.
Daniel Webster
One facet of Webster's importance was his willingness to innovate when he thought innovation meant improvement. He was the first to document distinctively American vocabulary such as skunk, hickory, and chowder.

Some of Webster’s  attempts at reform didn’t meet with acceptance, such as his support for modifying tongue to tung and women to wimmen.

Now we know why some American words are spelled differently than in the Mother Country. Now if we could just know why there's a difference in British English vs. American English pronunciation! 

Do any of you have an answer to that one?
And this discussion doesn’t even touch on the reason why we call the same item by different names, does it?


  1. Hi Sanda, Glad you clarified this, I did not know. As for the words, I have to say that in most cases listed above I prefer the American word with the exception of rubbish, queue and trousers. I like Mr Webster's independent thinking. : )

    1. I guess I prefer ours because they are familiar! I was very glad to learn why there are the differences in word spellings in the UK and USA!

  2. What an interesting post.
    I have learned the American English, but seem to mix words every now and then - fall / autumn..
    I do pronounce English with an Finnish-American accent, and since I get to speak in English seldom, I feel rusty and insecure.
    To your question, I only have one wild guess. The class system In Britain.
    The upper class speaks from a platform downwards to the commons, who then all have different accents according to in which part of the UK they live.
    Judith definitely is able to answer this one.

    1. I read Judith's answer below and looks as if you are spot on with your assessment!

  3. Mette has made the point,what used to be called "Received Pronunciation" belonged to a certain type of education,upbringing (upper class/aristocrat).With the 1960's arrival all sorts of regional accents became more the norm,made a refreshing change from the "cut glass" accent.This is a highly complicated subject that would fill books to answer!!
    Many of the above examples are now used here fries,garbage,pants which I use sometimes instead of trousers.
    We say varrse,you say vasse for vase............

    1. Interesting that some of the American words have been adopted there. It is true that language is always changing and adapting, and not always for the best, IMO. Thanks for your insight.

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