Amid the rancorous screaming matches of political discourse in 2016, a tempering voice emerged from an unlikely source: the dictionary. During the presidential election and its aftermath, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary mobilized its large social-media following to fact-check political figures who treated all language like fiction. From explaining the meaning of fact to differentiating between bigly and big league, the dictionary served as a biting challenge to the new regime, winning praise for its pithy critiques.
Merriam-Webster’s resistance to an administration steeped in nativism, however, is complicated by the dictionary’s original goal to create and preserve a monolithic American culture. Noah Webster Jr., the dictionary’s founding author, was one of the first American nationalists, and he wrote his reference books with the express purpose of creating a single definition of American English—one that often existed at the expense of regional and cultural variation of any kind.
In the century following the Revolutionary War, Webster’s American Spelling Book became so ubiquitous in the newly formed United States—selling an estimated hundred million copies—that its sales were outpaced only by those of the Bible. “To diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America, to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect,” wrote Webster in the preface of the speller, “is the most ardent wish of the author.” By capturing language not as it was written in England but as it was spoken in the U.S., Webster hoped to lay the foundation for a uniform American speech that could supersede European linguistic traditions. Where other instructional texts might capture existing modes of speech, he sought to elevate a new way of speaking, and in some sections the speller reads more like a political treatise than a children’s schoolbook.
Webster’s motivations were in part commercial—the schoolteacher-turned-lexicographer needed cash—but they were also undeniably political. He longed to give the American public a language they could call their own. The spellings that Webster promoted have now become hallmarks of American English, including dropping the letter u in words like color, removing the k from mimic, and changing words like centre to center.
When Webster’s speller was first published, politicians were debating the elimination of English altogether. Some advocated adopting German while others wanted to invent a new language altogether. Webster offered a compromise, envisioning a new, sanctified version of English to go with their new, independent identity. An avowed nationalist and born-again Christian, Webster was not an unbiased lexicographer. He envisioned the U.S. as successor to the Roman and Greek empires and hoped its burgeoning legacy would soon inspire a tradition of literature to surpass that of England. Webster’s dream of American exceptionalism underscores how the act of making a dictionary is by its very nature political, dictating the ways in which people communicate. Webster’s particular political agenda was an authoritarian one, and it veered into a total intolerance of difference.
Webster grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He was an eighteen-year-old Yale student when the Revolutionary War broke out. A passionate patriot, he enlisted during his summer vacation (though he accidentally arrived late to the Battle of Saratoga, missing the action). Webster’s contemporaries and his biographers have called him a zealot, and he even earned the nickname the Monarch for his attitude of superiority. “He was basically one of the most politically incorrect men alive,” Joshua Kendall, author of The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, told me on the phone. “Today Webster would be like a standard policy wonk on Sean Hannity, this right-wing, angry, white man.”
In the America of Webster’s youth, many residents felt a stronger sense of loyalty to the states they lived in than to the newly formed federal government. In 1776, approximately two and a half million residents were spread across hundreds upon hundreds of square miles from Georgia to Maine. In conversation with George Washington, Webster once described the union between the states as so tenuous as to be a “cobweb.” In his view, regional dialects, along with the popularity of languages such as French and German, further divided an already fragmented country. He feared that the influence of dialects in particular would “corrupt the national language.”
National spelling reform, according to Webster, would lay the foundation for national identity and pride. He advocated for teaching a form of English that would be familiar to most Americans. But by “most Americans,” he meant the people he counted as peers: Yale-educated white men. “There’s all of these examples where he wants a certain pronunciation to nationalize or formalize American pronunciation,” said Kendall, “and it’s always the way they speak in Connecticut.”
Webster hated the French with a passion and even started a daily newspaper in 1793 in part to combat French influence over the U.S. The American Minerva promoted a pro-Federalist and pro-American agenda while also documenting the atrocities carried out by the Jacobins. Following a speaking tour in the American South, he was horrified by the dialect of his countrymen, citing their pronunciation of common words as repugnant and criticizing their schoolrooms as disgraceful or nonexistent.
By the time Webster began writing his dictionary in the early 1800s, public interest in his vast linguistic project had waned, and so he found fresh energy from a new source: God. While working in his study in 1808, Webster said he spoke with God, falling to his knees and confessing his sins. From that day forward he was a devout Calvinist and a born-again Christian, and his understanding of the dictionary shifted to incorporate his newfound evangelism. He became convinced of the literal truth of the book of Genesis and the Tower of Babel, believing that all humans had spoken the same language at the beginning of time. With this conviction, he embarked on a series of wildly unscientific etymological investigations, trying to find common roots for words in languages originating in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The final project, at last published in 1828, is a work of gargantuan proportion, containing some seventy thousand words, including nouns that did not exist in England, such as skunk and squash. Webster erased some of his more radical spellings, such as wimmen for women and tung for tongue, but the removal of u in words such as honor remained.
Webster’s first dictionary stands apart not only for its new spellings and scope, but also for its ethos, which reflects its author’s convictions, his vision of the country as a fundamentally new place that would serve as a paragon for the rest of the world. While other English dictionaries used William Shakespeare for usage examples, Webster referenced George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Washington Irving, elevating them in the ranks of literature. The preface reiterates his devotion to a patriotic cause, calling the task of writing an American dictionary not just important but “necessary” for “preserv[ing] an identity of ideas.” He even required the inclusion of U.S.-specific definitions for words such as Senate (“the higher branch or house of legislature”) and plantation (a farm “where the labor is performed by slaves”), as part of this identity.
After a modest initial success, it took several decades for Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language to become the preeminent U.S. dictionary. Many of the Christian references and far-fetched etymologies were revised, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Webster’s dictionary had become so popular that his publisher had to fight to keep other lexicographers from using his name on their works. Part of what made the dictionary lasting was its precision. For all its unscientific motivations, the result was impressive: his book had more entries and greater specificity than anything available at the time.
Nearly two centuries later, at a time when truth is increasingly undervalued and American exceptionalism is widely embraced, the dictionary takes on fresh significance. Words, like the dictionaries that define them, have little intrinsic meaning. Those in power can wield them as an instrument for untruthful, or even tyrannical, ends. In a time of fake news and alternative facts, the usage of even simple words can serve to ensnare the listener rather than to educate him.
“Dictionaries—just by upholding and expounding rules of usage about classic issues like shall versus will, or what the subjunctive looks like—hold a line and may or may not trap you within it as a user,” said David Skinner, author of The Story of Ain’t, a book about Webster’s controversial third dictionary. “The act of writing,” he continued, “calls us to make soft truths sound like hard truths.”
For a man concerned with the standardization of language, partial to “hard truths,” Webster’s entry for truth is something of an anomaly: he provided a whopping thirteen meanings for the word.
Jess McHugh is a New York–based journalist writing about the intersection of politics and culture. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Village Voice, and Time, among others.