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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

VIII. American Spelling

2. The Influence of Webster

AT the time of the first settlement of America the rules of English orthography were beautifully vague, and so we find the early documents full of spellings that seem quite fantastic today. Aetaernall (for eternal) is in the Acts of the Massachusetts General Court for 1646. But now and then a curious foreshadowing of later American usage is encountered. On July 4, 1631, for example, John Winthrop wrote in his journal that “the governour built a bark at Mistick which was launched this day.” During the eighteenth century, however, and especially after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary, there was a general movement in England toward a more inflexible orthography, and many hard and fast rules, still surviving, were then laid down. It was Johnson himself who established the position of the u in the -our words. Bailey, Dyche and other lexicographers before him were divided and uncertain; Johnson declared for the u, and though his reasons were very shaky and he often neglected his own precept, his authority was sufficient to set up a usage which still defies attack in England. Even in America this usage was not often brought into question until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. True enough, honor appears in the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to have got there rather by accident than by design. In Jefferson’s original draft it is spelled honour. So early as 1768 Benjamin Franklin had published his “Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Remarks and Examples Concerning the Same, and an Enquiry into its Uses” and induced a Philadelphia typefounder to cut type for it, but this scheme was too extravagant to be adopted anywhere, or to have any appreciable influence upon spelling.

It was Noah Webster who finally achieved the divorce between English example and American practise. He struck the first blow in his “Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” published at Hartford in 1783. Attached to this work was an appendix bearing the formidable title of “An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation,” and during the same year, at Boston, he set forth his ideas a second time in the first edition of his “American Spelling Book.” The influence of this spelling-book was immediate and profound. It took the place in the schools of Dilworth’s “Aby-sel-pha,” the favorite of the generation preceding, and maintained its authority for fully a century. Until Lyman Cobb entered the lists with his “New Spelling Book,” in 1842, its innumerable editions scarcely had any rivalry, and even then it held its own. I have a New York edition, dated 1848, which contains an advertisement stating that the annual sale at that time was more than a million copies, and that more than 30,000,000 copies had been sold since 1783. In the late 40’s the publishers, George F. Cooledge & Bro., devoted the whole capacity of the fastest steam press in the United States to the printing of it. This press turned out 525 copies an hour, or 5,250 a day. It was “constructed expressly for printing Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book [the name had been changed in 1829] at an expense of $5,000.” Down to 1889, 62,000,000 copies of the book had been sold.

The appearance of Webster’s first dictionary, in 1806, greatly strengthened his influence. The best dictionary available to Americans before this was Johnson’s in its various incarnations, but against Johnson’s stood a good deal of animosity to its compiler, whose implacable hatred of all things American was well known to the citizens of the new republic. John Walker’s dictionary, issued in London in 1791, was also in use, but not extensively. A home-made school dictionary, issued at New Haven in 1798 or 1799 by one Samuel Johnson, Jr.—apparently no relative of the great Sam—and a larger work published a year later by Johnson and the Rev. John Elliott, pastor in East Guilford, Conn., seem to have made no impression, despite the fact that the latter was commended by Simeon Baldwin, Chauncey Goodrich and other magnificoes of the time and place, and even by Webster himself. The field was thus open to the laborious and truculent Noah. He was already the acknowledged magister of lexicography in America, and there was an active public demand for a dictionary that should be wholly American. The appearance of his first duodecimo, according to Williams, thereby took on something of the character of a national event. It was received, not critically, but patriotically, and its imperfections were swallowed as eagerly as its merits. Later on Webster had to meet formidable critics, at home as well as abroad, but for nearly a quarter of a century he reigned almost unchallenged. Edition after edition of his dictionary was published, each new one showing additions and improvements. Finally, in 1828, he printed his great “American Dictionary of the English Language,” in two large octavo volumes. It held the field for half a century, not only against Worcester and the other American lexicographers who followed him, but also against the best dictionaries produced in England. Until the appearance of the Concise Oxford in 1914, indeed, America remained far ahead of England in practical dictionary making.

Webster had declared boldly for simpler spellings in his early spelling books; in his dictionary of 1806 he made an assault at all arms upon some of the dearest prejudices of English lexicographers. Grounding his wholesale reforms upon a saying by Franklin, that “those people spell best who do not know how to spell”—i. e., who spell phonetically and logically—he made an almost complete sweep of whole classes of silent letters—the u in the -our words, the final e in determine and requisite, the silent a in thread, feather and steady, the silent b in thumb, the s in island, the o in leopard, and the redundant consonants in traveler, wagon, jeweler, etc. (English: traveller, waggon, jeweller). More, he lopped the final k from frolick, physick and their analogues. Yet more, he transposed the e and the r in many words ending in re, such as theatre, lustre, centre and calibre. Yet more, he changed the c in all words of the defence class to s. Yet more, he changed ph to f in words of the phantom class, ou to oo in words of the group class, ow to ou in crowd, porpoise to porpess, acre to aker, sew to soe, woe to wo, soot to sut, gaol to jail, and plough to plow. Finally, he antedated the simplified spellers by inventing a long list of boldly phonetic spellings, ranging from tung for tongue to wimmen for women, and from hainous for heinous to cag for keg.

A good many of these new spellings, of course, were not actually Webster’s inventions. For example, the change from -our to -or in words of the honor class was a mere echo of an earlier English uncertainty. In the first three folios of Shakespeare, 1623, 1632 and 1663–6, honor and honour were used indiscriminately and in almost equal proportions; English spelling was still fluid, and the -our-form was not consistently adopted until the fourth folio of 1685. Moreover, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is authority for the statement that the -or-form was “a fashionable impropriety” in England in 1791. But the great authority of Johnson stood against it, and Webster was surely not one to imitate fashionable improprieties. He deleted the u for purely etymological reasons, going back to the Latin honor, favor and odor without taking account of the intermediate French honneur, faveur and odeur. And where no etymological reasons presented themselves, he made his changes by analogy and for the sake of uniformity, or for euphony or simplicity, or because it pleased him, one guesses, to stir up the academic animals. Webster, in fact, delighted in controversy, and was anything but free from the national yearning to make a sensation.

A great many of his innovations, of course, failed to take root, and in the course of time he abandoned some of them himself. In his early “Essay on the Necessity, Advantage and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling” he advocated reforms which were already discarded by the time he published the first edition of his dictionary. Among them were the dropping of the silent letter in such words as head, give, built and realm, making them hed, giv, bilt, and relm; the substitution of doubled vowels for decayed diphthongs in such words as mean, zeal and near, making them meen, zeel and neer; and the substitution of sh for ch in such French loan-words as machine and chevalier, making them masheen and shevaleer. He also declared for stile in place of style, and for many other such changes, and then quietly abandoned them. The successive editions of his dictionary show still further concessions. Croud, fether, groop, gillotin, iland, instead, leperd, soe, sut, steddy, thret, thred, thum and wimmen appear only in the 1806 edition. In 1828 he went back to crowd, feather, group, island, instead, leopard, sew, soot, steady, thread, threat, thumb and women, and changed gillotin to guillotin. In addition, he restored the final e in determine, discipline, requisite, imagine, etc. In 1838, revising his dictionary, he abandoned a good many spellings that had appeared in either the 1806 or the 1828 edition, notably maiz for maize, suveran for sovereign and guillotin for guillotine. But he stuck manfully to a number that were quite as revolutionary—for example, aker for acre, cag for keg, grotesk for grotesque, hainous for heinous, porpess for porpoise and tung for tongue—and they did not begin to disappear until the edition of 1854, issued by other hands and eleven years after his death. Three of his favorites, chimist for chemist, neger for negro and zeber for zebra, are incidentally interesting as showing changes in American pronunciation. He abandoned zeber in 1828, but remained faithful to chimist and neger to the last.

But though he was thus forced to give occasional ground, and in more than one case held out in vain, Webster lived to see the majority of his reforms adopted by his countrymen. He left the ending in -or triumphant over the ending in -our, he shook the security of the ending in -re, he rid American spelling of a great many doubled consonants, he established the s in words of the defense group, and he gave currency to many characteristic American spellings, notably jail, wagon, plow, mold and ax. These spellings still survive, and are practically universal in the United States today; their use constitutes one of the most obvious differences between written English and written American. Moreover, they have founded a general tendency, the effects of which reach far beyond the field actually traversed by Webster himself. New words, and particularly loanwords, are simplified, and hence naturalized in American much more quickly than in English. Employè has long since become employee in our newspapers, and asphalte has lost its final e, and manœuvre has become maneuver, and pyjamas has become pajamas. Even the terminology of science is simplified and Americanized. In medicine, for example, the highest American usage countenances many forms which would seem barbarisms to an English medical man if he encountered them in the Lancet. In derivatives of the Greek haima it is the almost invariable American custom to spell the root syllable hem, but the more conservative English make it hæm—e. g., in hæmorrhage and hæmiplegia. In an exhaustive list of diseases issued by the United States Public Health Service the hæm- form does not appear once. In the same way American usage prefers esophagus, diarrhea and gonorrhea to the English æsophagus, diarrhæa and gonorrhæa. In the style book of the Journal of the American Medical Association I find many other spellings that would shock an English medical author, among them curet for curette, cocain for cocaine, gage for gauge, intern for interne, lacrimal for lachrymal, and a whole group of words ending in -er instead of in -re.

Webster’s reforms, it goes without saying, have not passed unchallenged by the guardians of tradition. A glance at the literature of the first years of the nineteenth century shows that most of the serious authors of the time ignored his new spellings, though they were quickly adopted by the newspapers. Bancroft’s “Life of Washington” contains -our endings in all such words as honor, ardor and favor. Washington Irving also threw his influence against the -or ending, and so did Bryant and most of the other literary big-wigs of that day. After the appearance of “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” in 1828, a formal battle was joined, with Lyman Cobb and Joseph E. Worcester as the chief opponents of the reformer. Cobb and Worcester, in the end, accepted the -or ending and so surrendered on the main issue, but various other champions arose to carry on the war. Edward S. Gould, in a once famous essay, denounced the whole Websterian orthography with the utmost fury, and Bryant, reprinting this philippic in the Evening Post, said that on account of Webster “the English language has been undergoing a process of corruption for the last quarter of a century,” and offered to contribute to a fund to have Gould’s denunciation “read twice a year in every school-house in the United States, until every trace of Websterian spelling disappears from the land.” But Bryant was forced to admit that, even in 1856, the chief novelties of the Connecticut schoolmaster “who taught millions to read but not one to sin” were “adopted and propagated by the largest publishing house, through the columns of the most widely circulated monthly magazine, and through one of the ablest and most widely circulated newspapers in the United States”—which is to say, the Tribune under Greeley. The last academic attack was delivered by Bishop Coxe in 1886, and he contented himself with the resigned statement that “Webster has corrupted our spelling sadly.” Lounsbury, with his active interest in spelling reform, ranged himself on the side of Webster, and effectively disposed of the controversy by showing that the great majority of his spellings were supported by precedents quite as respectable as those behind the fashionable English spellings. In Lounsbury’s opinion, a good deal of the opposition to them was no more than a symptom of antipathy to all things American among certain Englishmen and of subservience to all things English among certain Americans.

Webster’s inconsistencies gave his opponents a formidable weapon for use against him—until it began to be noticed that the orthodox English spelling was quite as inconsistent. He sought to change acre to aker, but left lucre unchanged. He removed the final f from bailiff, mastiff, plaintiff and pontiff, but left it in distaff. He changed c to s in words of the offense class, but left the c in fence. He changed the ck in frolick, physick, etc., into a simple c, but restored it in such derivatives as frolicksome. He deleted the silent u in mould, but left it in court. These slips were made the most of by Cobb in a furious pamphlet in excessively fine print, printed in 1831. He also detected Webster in the frequent faux pas of using spellings in his definitions and explanations that conflicted with the spellings he advocated. Various other purists joined in the attack, and it was renewed with great fury after the appearance of Worcester’s dictionary, in 1846. Worcester, who had begun his lexicographical labors by editing Johnson’s dictionary, was a good deal more conservative than Webster, and so the partisans of conformity rallied around him, and for a while the controversy took on all the rancor of a personal quarrel. Even the editions of Webster printed after his death, though they gave way on many points, were violently arraigned. Gould, in 1867, belabored the editions of 1854 and 1866 and complained that “for the past twenty-five years the Websterian replies have uniformly been bitter in tone, and very free in the imputation of personal motives, or interested or improper motives, on the part of opposing critics.” At this time Webster himself had been dead for twenty-two years. Schele de Vere, during the same year, denounced the publishers of the Webster dictionaries for applying “immense capital and a large stock of energy and perseverance” to the propagation of his “new and arbitrarily imposed orthography.”